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Don't read the label, it's damaging

Henry Hepburn and Emma Seith report on research presented at the Scottish educational psychologists' annual conference

LABELS SUCH as dyslexia, dyspraxia, social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and Asperger's syndrome are over-used in special education and can be "hugely" damaging, two educational psychologists have claimed.

Instead, they are proposing an "ethical framework" for labelling, where the crucial question is not whether terms are applied accurately, but whether they open doors for the person concerned.

"Labels may serve some limited educational functions and be a supportive resource for parents and children, but the potential negative impacts are huge," said Fraser Lauchlan, who works for South Lanarkshire psychological services and is a tutor at Strathclyde University, this week.

Dr Lauchlan and Chris Boyle, who also works in South Lanarkshire, accept there may be positive uses of labels in certain cases but argue that it should be the child and his or her family who decide whether to accept the label.

Some of the potentially positive aspects of using labels include:

* A diagnosis or label leads to treatment.

* Labelling raises awareness and promotes understanding.

* Ambiguities are reduced and there are clear ways for professionals to exchange information.

* Labels give comfort to children and families by explaining their difficulties.

* They provide a social identity, giving the sense of belonging to a group.

However, while Dr Lauchlan and Mr Boyle do not discount such explanations, they believe there are flip sides in each case. The argument that labelling leads to treatment, for example, begs the question of whether that treatment is suitable for the individual's needs. It might be that resources are used with a catch-all notion of a label in mind, rather than being designed for the indi- vidual child.

The downside to raising awareness, meanwhile, is that it can also stigmatise. "These labels can stay with an individual for the rest of their life, even in the face of subsequent contrary performance," said Dr Lauchlan.

The argument that labels reduce ambiguity and help professionals exchange information, is undermined by the lack of clear agreement as to how labels are decided.

Two professionals who use the same label, therefore, might not be thinking of the same set of difficulties.

Interpretation of a child's behaviour is not necessarily objective and can reflect prejudices and values, said Mr Boyle.

Behaviour that might be given a certain label in a deprived area, for example, might not be classified the same way in an affluent area.

Dr Lauchlan acknowledged that labels can provide comfort, pointing to the case of a child who got results back from an educational psychologist and felt that "suddenly I wasn't stupid any more".

However, the counter-argument was that labelling also lowers expectations, that to describe a child as low-achieving can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Labels also focus attention on difficulties within the indi- vidual and away from other factors, such as the child's teacher and peers, the community and local authority policy.

The sense of identity gained from labelling, meanwhile, must be set against the teasing, bullying and lowering of self-esteem that can result.

It was accepted, however, that such problems can exist without labels. A child diagnosed as autistic might be bullied purely because he or she prefers to sit alone, has few friends and does not mix very well.

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