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Human behavior Labels: Is it really a Good Thing?

Updated on October 5, 2010

As a past Rehabilitation Practitioner and Special Educator, it behoves me when we are quick to attach labels to ourselves, loved ones and our children. It almost seems today we prefer to have an excuse or explanation for why people behave the way they do. Attached to this label comes medications and other therapies as part of the course to changing behaviour. Also, one must question whether the label benefits the person or benefits those attempting to help them. In Canada, for example, coded children (those who have a label) come with added funding from the state for educating them. The same holds true for Rehabilitation professionals. Other professions grab on to the coat tails of the labelled person by being eager to add their advice to the mix for a fee. I have literally been involved with multidisciplinary teams counting 50 plus in number all putting their two cents in for the betterment of the person. Albeit, this may fuel work within the profession, but how exactly does it benefit the person? Here are the drawbacks to labelling people I have seen:

1. Labels stick to the person like glue and limits their ability to strive for better: Throughout school, the child with a label ends up with preconceived notions about them. In essence, opportunities to strive beyond the attached label becomes ever cumbersome. In essence, we lock labelled persons in a box because we get this notion they can’t do better. I can give you my personal example. I was unable to read until Grade 7. In my grade 7 year, the school called in my parents and told them I was “retarded.” They recommended I should be placed in a Vocational School so I could learn how to clean floors. My mother was not willing to let that label be attached to me. She told them she would teach me how to read and write. Within 6 months, I read at Grade level and was writing at a Grade 6 level. I went on to graduate from High School and earned a Bachelor of Education degree as well as a Master of Education degree with honours in Special Education. I am currently a PhD Candidate. The crowning glory was when I graduated with my Teaching certificate. I was welcomed to attend Teachers’ Convention. I will never forget the look I got on the same teachers faces who labelled me as “Retarded.” One of them came up to me and asked (in a rude voice), “What are you doing here?” I replied with a smirk on my face, “I am a teacher just like YOU!” and walked away. My son was also labelled as “slow.” I taught him myself and he is now a first year Pre-Medicine Student.

2. Labels reduce the sense of trying and builds learned helplessness: People with labels are quick to give up because the professionals say they have a problem and won’t be able to achieve. They are normally not willing to take risks as they are told risk taking will only end up in failure. The self-esteem drops and with it comes a drop in hope resulting in a drop in performance.

3. Labels confirm something is not normal: As children grow up, they have a strong desire to be “normal” (whatever that means depends on who you talk with). As a result, they become more influenced with peer groups in efforts to become accepted. Labels stifle this desire to be like everyone else and can lead to long term damage.

4. Labels can go in either extreme: People who are gifted are labelled the same way as those labelled as behaviourally challenged, “slow”, Learning Disabled and the like. All are crippling as expectations vary according to the label. Children labelled as Gifted are expected to outperform without regard for their inner human needs (i.e. being a kid and being accepted). Conversely, those labelled as slow are expected to underachieve and will confirm it in attempts to gain acceptance. On either spectrum, psychological damage can be done to the person.

5. Labels can develop self-fulfilling prophecies: If, for example, a person is labelled as a behaviour problem, the better chance they will confirm this to gain needed attention. Let’s face it, we all need attention. If our behaviours yield an army of professionals who take interest in our label, we are more likely to continue to exhibit what professionals want to see to keep the attention going. After all, negative attention is better than no attention at all.

Do not take labelling of children, yourself or your loved ones lightly. If you must have a label to receive assistance, you should:

· Minimize the label and maximize the person: Remember, the person with a label is a human being first. They must know they are loved, wanted, an asset as a human being and can always strive to be the best they can be. They must have hope to do better.

· Have multiple professional opinions before affixing a label: If a label must be affixed, it should be confirmed by many different professionals. Have at least three separate opinions from three different professionals and do not let them know any past information. You want an unbiased assessment and the only way to do that is to let the professional assess from scratch.

· If the person exhibits behaviours, do not allow their label to be an excuse: Expect your children or loved one to behave appropriately every time. Your consistency of expectations tells them you expect no less from them than anyone else.

· Try to prove the label wrong: Don’t ever give up on your loved one. If they can’t read, help them. Always have hope and help them though as best you can.

· Reward milestones: Praise, token rewards and doing things they like builds a person up. Let them know of their success(es), no matter how small they are. Focus on rewards and minimize punitive actions. Their love and respect will grow and grow. Many times, your loved one will want to rise above their label as best they can because they love you and want your praise and acceptance.

I will never forget my mother spending hours with me to teach me to read and write to prove my label wrong. For that, my love for her is forever and above all things in my life. It was her encouragement that made me achieve to the level I have today. I was fortunate to pass it on to my son too. He has told me many times he will be the best Doctor ever because he knows what it feels like for someone to never give up on him. One day, I guarantee he will return the favour to someone else.


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    • prairieprincess profile image

      Sharilee Swaity 7 years ago from Canada

      As a former teacher myself, this article really resonates with me. I do agree that labels are often about helping the "Helper," rather than helping the one who is being labeled. In the last 15 years or so, our school system has gone "label crazy." Yes, sometimes being coded kids do get help that they need. Unfortunately, though, sometimes they just give up after being coded.

      This is a great subject, and there is a lot more to write on this topic. Take care!

    • AKH profile image

      AKH 7 years ago from Rhode Island

      I have a hub called "Understanding Human Behavior and Personality Types" that will summarize the Doctrine. Perhaps more useful than going to the website.

    • AKH profile image

      AKH 7 years ago from Rhode Island

      Great article. Thanks for sharing it. Unfortunately it resonated with me personally. I am all too aware of labels. When my son (who has ADHD) was in elementary school he had a really tough time. He had to go to the nurse’s office everyday to take his noon prescription dose. And of course many students were aware of this. So unfortunately he was labeled by his classmates as someone who had something wrong with him. He was teased a lot and didn’t really have any friends. Everyday before he came home from school I would get so anxious because I knew he was going to tell me about something someone said or did. He was so unhappy and he didn’t have much self-esteem. All I could do was try to convince him that they were all wrong and that he was a great kid. I was always positive with him. But it hurts so much to see your child unhappy. He is now 20, going to college, has new friends and has managed to finally feel good about himself.

      Another thing that caught my attention immediately was the reference as to “…why people behave the way they do.” There is a useful and positive theory called the Wakefield Doctrine (the theory of clarks, scotts and rogers)which to a degree is in line with your post regarding human behavior. It is predicated upon the idea that everyone experiences the world/reality differently, from one of three overlapping but distinctive perspectives. It also proposes that our personalities are but a result of our perception, of our habitual responses to the world. And when applied to everyday life enables you to see the world ‘through the eyes’ of another, thus making behavior become understandable. I have to stress personality types because the Wakefield Doctrine does not subscribe to labels, but rather why people say and do the things they do.

      I would like to invite you to visit the Wakefield Doctrine to further explore the premise. It is in no way a means of labeling people, but rather an answer to the age-old question “why do people act the way they do?” I think you will find it quite interesting and beneficial and would love to hear what you think. I look forward to hearing from you!