Why Label?

I just came back from EdCamp Mississauga (#edcamp905), and while I have many blog posts swirling around in my head after this great day of learning, there’s one that I feel as though I need to write first. The second session that I went to today addressed “Mental Wellness and Technology.” A point that came up numerous times was the “importance of the label” (e.g., anxiety, depression, etc.). Maybe this helps create a shared understanding of the child and his/her needs. Maybe this helps decrease the stigma (as there’s often discussion of the stigma associated with Mental Health). But the more I think about it, the more I wonder, do we need to label everything?

Education is full of labels (not all associated with Mental Health).

  • This child has ADHD.
  • This child is learning disabled.
  • This child is gifted.
  • This child has autism.
  • This child is a selective mute.
  • This child has FASD.
  • This child has anxiety.
  • This child has depression.

And my list is nowhere near complete. As I contemplate labels more, I wonder …

  • Does the label change our perception of what the child can do or cannot do?
  • Does the label make other children respond to this child differently? Is this necessary?

It was during this same session that an occasional teacher shared her experience going into a classroom one morning and meeting a child that was very upset. He kept crying. She thought back to her placement and a student that she had before that acted in a similar way. In her previous experience, giving the child about five minutes alone to calm down seemed to help. But it didn’t help in this other case, and soon, a small problem became a lot bigger. Her point was that it would be very beneficial to know about these struggling students — and the students that are labelled with different needs — so that she can support them as a supply teacher. 

This made me think of my supply notes. I’ll admit that my supply plans usually resemble a novella (hence why I try to email them to the supply teacher prior to the day), but in the past couple of years, the composition of these plans have changed a lot. About 75% of my plans are notes about the kids. There is a note on each child … and this is not a list of labels or a collection of problems.

  • Sometimes this note is a link to a photograph that helps the child calm down when he/she is upset.
  • Sometimes this note talks about some key words/strategies to use with different children to help them with getting dressed, going out for recess, or packing up at the end of the day.
  • Sometimes this note mentions some favourite activities.
  • Sometimes this note mentions some extension possibilities for students that need it.

These are only some examples. My point here is that all of our students are special. They may all need something different to do their best, and on certain days — like when there is a supply teacher in the room — they may need this even more. 

After this Mental Wellness session, I had an interesting conversation with another EdCamp attendee that led to these next two questions: if we create a caring environment, where all students feel safe and supported (both academically and socially), will many problems (and maybe even the need for some labels) slowly start to fade away? How do we create this environment? While I realize that labels can play a role in funding formulas and special class placements, I can’t help but wonder if they’re always necessary or if we sometimes rely on them too much. What do you think?


4 thoughts on “Why Label?

  1. I believe having a ‘label’ for a student is a good starting point at the beginning of the school year. The ‘label’ will help a teacher determine which research-based strategies are highly recommended to support the student. Then, getting to know our students better throughout the school year is crucial in order to allow the student to achieve academically and socially. The teacher should still focus daily on creating the calm, caring classroom environment that will benefit all students including the one’s with ‘labels’.

    • Thanks for your comment, David! While I realize that some labels may be in place and may be necessary, I wonder if we make assumptions about children based on the labels. Could different classroom environments possibly change the supports that some students need? Maybe it’s a utopian idea to think that we can function in a school system without so many labels, but I wonder sometimes if, as educators, we start by looking at the “label” first — instead of the “child.” How do we change this?


  2. Thanks, Aviva. Understanding a student needn’t mean labelling, but sometimes a diagnosis is helpful since proven strategies with a particular condition may be useful. That said, I still believe if educators know their students, that goes a long way to creating that caring environment. Empathy helps too!

    • Thanks for the comment, Sue! I agree with you. I also think that even given certain identifications (e.g., autism), we sometimes make assumptions about students, and maybe don’t spend as much time on that second piece of what you said: “Getting to know our students.” This is how we can also figure out what may trigger certain behaviour, and digging deeper into the “why this child” and “why now” questions, can also help with that empathy piece and the creation of that environment that will help support ALL students.

      I also wonder if sometimes with labels, we forget certain strategies that may work for other students (even if they don’t have that label). One year, I had a lot of success using a combination of social stories and task analysis for a student … but he did not have autism (strategies usually used for students that do). That said, outlining and chunking expectations, and giving him some control in completing tasks (even with an explicit list), really seemed to help. It actually turned his behaviour around. I wonder if sometimes we have to remember that what may be good for a few, could be good for many. Students don’t always need identifications to use specific strategies, and often strategies used for our neediest of students, tend to help many more (at least this has always been my experience). I’m curious to hear what others think.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *