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How Childhood Labels Impact Your Whole Life
Don't Let Labels Get You Down
Easier said than done. Considering the labels that make us are the same labels that break us.
I was in the third grade when I received my first set of labels. Finding math boring, I got a little bit behind. Reason enough for my teacher to contact my parents, have them in for a meeting. They told me some words about short-term memory, how I don’t remember things I learn at the last minute (who does?) And then they told me I had ADD because I got bored in class and would space off sometimes (who doesn’t?) I was young, not yet aware that everyone gets a label these days. I thought these labels were hyper-special to me. I thought I was dumb, damaged in some way or another.
Thankfully, through all the years of poor grades and low levels of focus, an inability to study for an exam simply because I thought my ‘memory troubles’ would prevent me from doing well anyways, my parents remained upbeat. Always telling me to ignore the labels, I was smart. I just had to realize it for myself.
So when by some stretch of a miracle I found myself in college, I was the only person shocked to learn if I studied for an exam, I got an A! I graduated college a few months ago, my name having comfortably rested on the Dean’s List for many consecutive semesters.
But my success comes after years of buying into the ‘learning disabled’ labels elementary school handed me. Thankfully, now I know why.
It is very common for children of all socioeconomic backgrounds to receive medical labels before they reach ten years old. Many of these labels are handed out at school by staff and teachers. Sure, some kids are unexplainably hyper but others are only acting out against the strict constraints of education. Children are supposed to be full of energy, happy, and outgoing. Is it normal for a child to want to sit in a classroom for six hours a day, writing things that same so irrelevant to an eight-year-old life?
Working at an elementary school, one kid was always in trouble for squirming around. Coined ‘ADD,’ he was smart but the teacher became regularly irritated with his restless antics. Until one day, we all went to this interactive assembly and the same boy was called upon stage and given a rather large part. Everyone was clapping him on as his high energy, loud voice, and quick-actions (in other words his ADD) were appreciated in this non-traditional, yet still academic, setting.
But who structured school in the first place? Learning in a classroom setting only works for some kids, labeling those it doesn’t work for does nothing to solve the problem. In my case, it only made things worse. Perhaps we should be labeling schools as unfit to teach students of all learning styles.
Science Shows Labels Hurt
In one popular study, teachers were told which of their incoming students were considered ‘gifted’ and which were considered ‘slow’ learners. Randomly selected, the names and labels were not based on any truth, marking the findings all the more significant. The students pre-established as quick learners were almost always placed at the front of the classroom, called on regularly, and praised often. These ‘gifted’ students ended up doing far better by the end of the year than the so-called ‘slow learners’ who were singled out as ‘special’ and given less one-on-one time.
This proved two incredible things. One, teachers do not have the same expectations for all students and two, kids are aware of their teacher’s varied expectations and those who are given less attention and expected less-of produce the lowest quality of work. Just think: if a child has a learning disability of any kind their teacher is made aware of it at the start of the year.
Learning about this as an under-grad I became fascinated, for the very same thing had happened to me! Looking back I wonder how being hyper or bored by math ever constituted me as learning-impaired? It doesn't. And today I am living, walking proof of this.