When in doubt apply a label!

I wonder which labels this young boy in China feels most happy with?

I wonder which labels this young boy in China feels most happy with?

I have mentioned the concerns that many of us have about labelling before on this blog. My own main concern is that once we apply a label of any kind we are in danger of encouraging stereotyping. Let’s just take two examples to illustrate my point. If a child is described as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) this will raise alarm bells for many teachers and other professional colleagues. Individuals so labelled are likely to be perceived as problematic, presenting with difficult behaviours and unreceptive to conventional teaching approaches. These same teachers are therefore sometimes bemused when the pupil arrives in school and is withdrawn and quiet.  Stereotyping a child according to his label will often lead to such confusion. A contrasting example might be provided when we look at the label professor. To illustrate this point let me tell you a story.

In 2011 I was visiting a school where a good friend of mine was the headteacher. Prior to my visit he told the pupils in a class of 10 year olds, “today my friend Richard is coming to visit us, he is a Professor at the university. Why don’t you draw a picture of what you think he might look like so that you can show him when he comes?” Now, my friend has a good sense of humour. He knew what he expected and he wasn’t disappointed. When he took me to visit this class, all the pupils had produced pictures of the visiting professor. Some of you may already have an image in your mind of what they had produced. Many had drawn predictable pictures of a wild haired, bespectacled, quite elderly man, in many instances wearing a white lab coat. I suspect they were quite disappointed that I didn’t look like a real professor (well not much anyway!).

As I hope the two examples demonstrate, there is a certain danger in applying labels to people. This is an issue of which many of us working in education have been aware for a number of years, yet there is still a newsworthy quality to debates in this area.

Of all the labels applied to children it is “dyslexia” that appears to make the news with the most alarming regularity. When I arrived home this evening I recognised the easily distinguishable voice of a colleague from the University of Durham coming from the television in the sitting room. Professor Julian Elliott is a respected teacher and researcher whose work in the area of special and inclusive education is well known in the UK. Julian’s views on what he has in the past referred to as “the myth of dyslexia” are well known, but he is currently in the news for his latest book “The Dyslexia Debate.” Interviewed about this book Julian stated that:-

“Typically, we search for a diagnostic label when we encounter problems because we believe that this will point to the best form of treatment. It is hardly surprising therefore, that the parents and teachers of children with reading difficulties believe that if the child is diagnosed as dyslexic, clear ways to help them will result.”

Julian suggests that many children have reading difficulties and that parents and teachers often search for a reason to explain these. In particular, he believes that middle class educated parents feel more at ease if their child with a reading difficulty has the label of dyslexia. Having a diagnosis makes it acceptable to have a difficulty. There is however, says Julian, no scientific justification for using the label and if a child has reading difficulties he needs carefully planned teaching approaches that are equally beneficial for others who have similar difficulties but no label.

As might be expected Julian’s views do not find favour with everybody. Dr John Rack, who is head of research, development and policy, for a national organisation called Dyslexia Action has argued that the term has a legitimate scientific and educational value. When confronted with Julian Elliott’s ideas he said:-

“We don’t buy the argument that it is wasteful to try to understand the different reasons why different people struggle. And for very many, those reasons fall into a consistent and recognisable pattern that it is helpful to call dyslexia.”

 “Helpful for individuals because it makes sense out of past struggles and helpful for teachers who can plan the way they teach to overcome or find ways around the particular blocks that are there.”

So, which side of this debate do you come down on?

The issue is not helped by the fact that for some children and their families it is much easier to obtain resources to support their child if they can obtain a formal diagnosis. This applies to other learning needs and is not specific to dyslexia. Who can blame parents who seek these diagnoses when they believe that it will make life easier for their child? Similarly, we should not blame teachers or school managers who know that if they can have a child assessed and labelled they will be provided with additional resources to make their teachers’ lives easier.

As I argued in an earlier blog, the teaching approaches that have been developed specifically to address the needs of children who have a label, whether this be dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder or any of the numerous others applied, often have some value in the pedagogical armoury of the teacher. When these techniques are carefully applied they may well benefit just as many pupils who don’t have a label.

My concerns remain. Once we apply a label we create an image of a child, and that can often have negative connotations and in particular a lowering of expectations about what a child might achieve. But as I have also indicated, the application of a label may result in a pupil gaining additional support and access to well trained and dedicated professionals.

This is a debate that is destined to continue well into the future. It is however one that is important to have as we strive to assist teachers to become more inclusive in their teaching. Do feel free to join the debate, your insights may well help those of us who are struggling.

Now where did I leave my lab coat and wild wig?


The Dyslexia Debate  by Julian Elliott and Elena L. Grigorenko. Cambridge University Press (2014) ISBN: 978-051135870

The Dyslexia Debate by Julian Elliott and Elena L. Grigorenko. Cambridge University Press (2014) ISBN: 978-051135870




6 thoughts on “When in doubt apply a label!

  1. Hi Richard – They are working on a system here in Alberta, Canada, where kids can get the help & resources they need without having to be ‘coded’ with a disability. So far it looks to me like just a bunch of government rhetoric with no real substance behind it, but in principle I like the idea. Not 100% sure but I think some European countries do this – perhaps Sweden? Does anyone know?

    • Hi Tim,
      I love the use of the term “coding”. I sometimes think that children are seen rather as researchers might see data. I think you are correct about one of the Scandinavian countries. I’ll see what I can find out.

  2. I have been pondering on this issue for a few months now. I recently had an interesting experience where a teacher told me, “Now I am able to help the child as I know she has asperger’s. I know exactly what to search for and have used many strateties I read about inthe Net” (capital N intended, never mind the many strategies we have been discussing for sensorimotor issues). Now I find I am uncomfortable with such a statement on many levels. While i am glad the teacher has found things that help, is the implication here that now that a diagnosis is known, the child ‘qualifies’ for assistance? Is it that now the teacher has a keyword to use to find ideas? Do the child’s difficulties and need for support appear more legitimate? I was even more disturbed when she said that she now understands the child better,but feels bad that she has “pushed” the child in the past and now knows not to. Does this mean that she had unrealistic expectations earlier and now will not expect “too much”? Of course there is that pesky inner voice that questions whether I am reacting rather than responding to the teacher.
    The one use i can find for labels such as “dyslexia” is that people (teachers, parents) may begin to understand that it is truly difficult and involves more effort for a person to read or write, etc. and she is NOT JUST LAZY!!!

  3. Hi Bharati,
    Yes, the labelling of children is difficult. I am sure it does impact upon expectations as you say. Your last point however, is a very interesting one and something that needs further explanation. I had already intended writing more about the labelling issue on the basis of a conversation I had with a friend who was diagnosed as dyslexic in adulthood. I’ll pick this issue up again and let’s see if others have ideas.

  4. Good morning, My views are as follows; Parents and teachers have a lot to consider when contemplating an assessment -. in practice the label gives the child entitlement to support and resource hours (General Allocation Model, GAM) in Ireland. So on one hand they are doing the best for the child, and on the other many parents have to deal with feelings of guilt, grief, denial , acceptance, while battling to put services and support in place. There is also the issue of inform ther child that this label is now associated with them. Stereotyping -as you said above is common) but as Griffin & Shevlin ,2011 state the nature of SEN can vary considerably between children of the same diagnosis.
    So do we as educators need to change our attitude, accept their difference, encourage their strengths and open our world to meet their needs?.
    A label is for life and it is the child who is most important – t a label may also have negative aspects, e.g. low self worth or in some cases a child may be overprotected. Sometimes children internalise negative views and become withdrawn. A cycle of dependency and exclusion is thus created and it is difficult to break (Resier, 2006).
    There is no easy answer to the debate on labelling but I will leave you with a voice of the child in a little piece of a poem written by a student of mine with a label. I think it says a lot.

    Frost in the night, havoc in sight,
    Snow in the night, a child’s delight,
    White weighted blanket all around,
    On the ground,
    Bewildering many,
    Understood by few

    (name withheld for the this purpose)

    Best wishes Marie

  5. Hi Marie,
    Thanks for this very thoughtful posting and also for sharing the insights of one of your students. The GAM is a good example of a system that pushes schools and parents towards seeking a diagnosis, because of course with this comes resource allocation. No body should be clamed for seeking use such a system for the advantage of a child. As you rightly say this is a most complex issue and one that I will say more about in the next posting. Thanks again for contributing to thinking in this area.

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