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How Childhood Labels Impact Your Whole Life

Updated on July 3, 2012
I did it!!!!
I did it!!!!

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.


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    • Becky Bruce profile image

      Becky Bruce 5 years ago from San Diego, CA

      Gosh- you do good in school and you get labeled, you do bad in school- you get a label! Does it ever end?! I'm glad to see both of us have made it out to the other side- completely aware of what happened and why. I think the worst is never coming to terms with it, that's how the labels from childhood can mess up people even into adulthood. Thanks so much barbergirl :)

    • Becky Bruce profile image

      Becky Bruce 5 years ago from San Diego, CA

      I will defiantly check out the speech that you talk about! It sounds like you do some really amazing and interesting work! We expect kids to be cookie-cutter perfect- I just don't understand how we got to a place where the hyper kids need drugs! Thanks so much nikkiraeink!

    • Becky Bruce profile image

      Becky Bruce 5 years ago from San Diego, CA

      Melovy- It seems you are highly educated and experienced with the issues of education! Always love to hear from people like you :) Studies that show why poor kids do worse in school are totally ignored and instead they get blamed which is so unfair and far from just! And I love how you mention some just take longer to take up studying (such as your own daughter) - once I got into college I started to love learning and had no troubles studying for tests and getting A's-- but in lower education I just was not ready! Plus I was so bogged down by all of the labels. Anyways- thanks so much for posting such a meaningful post :)

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 5 years ago from UK

      I so agree with what you've written here. I used to teach and it's 18 years since I left, but even then some people were aware of how much expectations affected kids' achievement. At that time most of the research (in the UK at least) was on how much class affected achievement - if kids came from poor backgrounds there were often low expectations from both teachers and the children's family. Yet even with that awareness, the labelling has increased.

      What you wrote about school not suiting all children is also spot on. We once had a trainer who explained that there are 4 different ways of learning - abstract sequential, abstract random, concrete sequential and concrete random. School is most suited to abstract sequential learners and least to concrete random.

      I also think that some kids just take longer to be ready for study. My elder daughter found reading easy from day one, whereas her sister took almost a year before she could easily grasp new words. Then something just clicked and she could do it. She has gone on to improve all the way through school and now does well.

      It sounds as if you have great parents, and well done for getting beyond labels. And well done for this great hub!

    • nikkiraeink profile image

      nikkiraeink 5 years ago from So. Cal.

      Very interesting hub. The ADD label is very interesting to me. If you have a chance check out Ken Robinson's speech on He mentions a similar story about a little girl with too much energy and how it was dealt with. I think you'll like it. I work with adults who all have children under 17 and we often show his speech. Education is important at any age and with the easy resolution of putting children on medication, my hopes with the video is that maybe one parent out of the bunch will make a different decision.

      As Maya Angelou says, "When you know better, you do better."

    • barbergirl28 profile image

      Stacy Harris 5 years ago from Hemet, Ca

      When I was in school they really didn't have ADD yet, so when the younger generation behind me started getting those labels I was kind of a misbeliever in it. I thought it was nothing more than an excuse. Not saying kids might not need more help in certain subjects but unless your a genius, there will always be something that you don't fully get. To me, the label ADD was nothing more than someone pretending to be a doctor and diagnosing others. They had no right.

      For me, I was given a label as well - but it went in the other direction. I was always called a school girl. For me, even though I was proud of my grades and I worked hard for them, I was looked down at by other classmates because apparently all I cared about was my grades. It is sad how much labels can hurt a person.

      Great hub and great information. Glad you pushed through. Keep believing!

    • Becky Bruce profile image

      Becky Bruce 5 years ago from San Diego, CA

      krsharp05, so true about the negativity. It really is a trap, as a kid your world view is so small, you only know what you've been shown and told. Thanks for reading and thanks for the kind words :)

    • Becky Bruce profile image

      Becky Bruce 5 years ago from San Diego, CA

      livingabroad, I couldn't agree with you more! Although labels can help people feel less alone or what not, for many others they can hurt more than help. Glad to once again read your insights on important issues :)

    • krsharp05 profile image

      Kristi Sharp 5 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      I did a lot of research about this topic and found the same devastating results. The hardest part is what the label does to the child because they feel trapped by the negativity. It's great that you were able to rise above and succeed. Interesting hub. -K

    • livingabroad profile image

      livingabroad 5 years ago from Wales, UK

      Really interesting hub Becky. You're obviously at the forefront of this issue, studying an undergrad in Education? As you know there are a variety of learning styles and students learn at different rates. All student needs to be exposed to a variety as you mentioned with the student at assembly. Teachers have a duty to discover effective ways to help individuals succeed, making learning accessible and enjoyable.

      I think American society in general is guilty of labelling too many people, I can't believe many receive one before they are 10! Per-scribing people with therapies, special learning assistance and putting them into brackets seems to be normal, why? Carrying such a stigma from an early age could potentially ruin people later on in life! Obviously there are students who fall into these categories, but assessment needs to be done carefully before one is labelled with learning difficulties. These are the ones who need the most help and need to feel empowered by learning, not the other way round.

      Great read. Up interesting and SHARING.