A wise old saying goes, "Don't expect clean water from a well that has just been dug. It takes time for the dirt to settle before one can enjoy the freshness of clean water."
Teachers and parents are always confronted with situations that require them to decide whether or not a child or student needs to be assessed right away or given more time to display behaviours and attitudes that comply with the norm. Typically, non-compliance with the status quo (or norm) is shunned and almost immediately negatively labelled.
The tendency for parents and teachers to engage in systematic diagnosis and labelling of a child is sometimes understandable. But often adults in helping professions like teaching and counselling do not reserve their judgment regarding perceived behavioural, academic or social-emotional differences.
On close examination, I realise that adults do so to reduce the stress involved in having to constantly deal with experiences with out-of-norm students. In other words, dealing with an "unknown" (or not-yet-labelled) out-of-norm behaviour, performance or emotion of a child is more stressful and frustrating than dealing with a tentatively known or labelled condition.
By resorting to labelling, an adult feels less apprehensive about a child's condition and hence is more comfortable dealing with the perceived crisis at hand. As erroneous as this may be, adults are able to discount their roles and responsibilities for a child's out-of-norm experience when the child is labelled as exhibiting experiences that are very different from those of his/her peers.
Believing that a child has an inherently imposed condition that adversely affects his/her learning allows teachers and parents to excuse themselves for failing to remedy the condition and/or situation. This allows them not to be too harsh on themselves. In this sense, labelling is and has been used for the convenience of adults more than to help children to improve and develop holistically.
There are many arguments against labelling children at school or elsewhere. For example, when we label someone, our perception and image of that person are changed. For example, once a child is labelled (correctly or incorrectly) as hyperactive, we expect them to act in ways that are typically associated with a hyperactive individual. We do not care to pause and think of that person as being an individual with different talents, preferences, aspirations and strengths. We choose to see only the features represented by the label itself.
The moment we label someone, we fail to see many attributes outside that label. We deliberately close ourselves from exploring everything else about the individual. In the process, we miss many important characteristics that make up the person's true identity, experiences and potential.
Labelling creates a barrier in the minds of adults dealing with children/students, and most often, these barriers exist only in the mind of the characterising adult. This explains why sometimes children unexpectedly surprise us with their tremendous capacity to create, innovate and problem-solve, especially when our biased expectations dictated otherwise.
Take the right action
Professionals argue that labelling is important to facilitate efficient communication among themselves in an effort to assist an affected child. At the same time, they also acknowledge the ill effects of labelling. We should stop labelling because the damage it causes outweighs the potential benefit. Additionally, any benefit is for the convenience of adults rather than for helping children/students.
Dr Edward Roy Krishnan is the director of KENT Thailand, Institute of Business & Technology (
Dr Edward Roy Krishnan is the director of KENT Thailand, Institute of Business & Technology (www.kentthailand.com). He also lectures in the Graduate School of Psychology, Assumption University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org . You may also visit http://www.affectiveteaching.com .