Labeling Students More Harmful Than Good

File and rank

There are some kids, who from day one, are pegged as problem children even before they have a chance to develop a sense of personality. These kids are thrust into an often damaging labeling system whose affects can sit with them academically and emotionally for the remainder of their lives.

Currently, America is the only country that categorizes children practically out of the box with labels such as Gifted, Regs, Mainstream, or Special. Forcing some parents to scramble in getting their child labeled properly.

Yet these labels alone create a divide among classmates, parents and even school staff—whether deliberately or not— similar to the use of the well-known classism version of Rich vs Poor. Which is funny to me because if adults can’t seem to get accustomed to such dividing titles, how do we expect our children?

It’s no secret that students placed in the “Reg”, “Mainstream” and “Special” learning tracks are more often from lower socioeconomic means, which can adversely affect a child’s learning. The bottom line is simple: If parents don’t have the money to buy the tools that could get their child ahead, don’t have enough education for themselves to be able to point their child in a favorable direction, don’t have strong role models around to set a good example … the liklihood of a kid pulling him- or herself out of the muck of limited opportunities is pretty damn slim.

But poverty does not translate to stupidity.

Brain Drain

In a study by John Hopkins University, it was shown that students from lower economic means initially perform comparable to those of higher means. But by the end of fifth grade, disadvantaged kids were almost three grades behind!

What was the leading difference?

Summer vacation.

Children from higher incomes still had access to educational tools such as summer camps, workshops or trips to the library. Those of lower economic means were limited as they no longer had access to the only educational tool available to them: their school. For a good portion of disadvantaged kids, it takes precious gas and/or money to take even the simplest trip to the library.

Though poverty does play an influential role in education, it still does not translate to stupidity.

Labeling, however, does.

Labeled before you can walk

Ray C. Rist did a study in 1970, and over a course of three years, he observed how low socioeconomic students were filtered into a label and separation system by their teacher within the first eight days of the school year

    • Middle-class: Tigers
    • Working-class: Cardinals
    • Poor: Clowns

This seemingly harmless labeling was subsequently perpetuated by future teachers, increasing or decreasing teacher expectation according to which group a child was assigned.

Lowered expectations

Einstein fishOnce a child is labeled, it’s hard to get it removed.

There are numerous things that can influence a teachers expectations of a student. This can stem from (but not limited to) first-hand information acquired through personal interactions with a student, the experience a student has with others, a student’s race, gender, ethnicity, etc. All can lead to how a teacher expects a student to perform in the classroom.

If a teacher, for example, receives information about a child that has been labeled “special”, the child will receive a “special” curriculum. Though this curriculum on the surface is good, customizing education according to a child’s needs, the isolation also serves to strengthen the “special” qualities. Qualities that are then carried forth and maintained throughout a student’s academic career.

If a child is placed in a box and not allowed to venture out of it, he or she never will.

If a child is expected to perform poorly, he or she surely will.

Teachers and Administrators aren’t the only ones to blame

But not all educational ills fall on the heads of teachers. There is an even greater influence that molds the minds of children:


Parents are the first line of defense when it comes to a child’s education. The key developmental infant, toddler, and preschool years are held in the palms of parents hands. But many must realize that when children reach school age, the educational, ethical and moral responsibility of their welfare doesn’t automatically shift to teachers. It doesn’t suddenly become labeled as “their problem” (Remember, it works both ways. Educational labels just aren’t good on either side).

We are the products of our environment

Another way of putting this: A disengaged parent, teacher or administration develops and creates a disengaged child—rich or poor.

It is a teacher’s and administration’s job to teach and nurture a love of learning. It is a parent’s job to not only shoulder the development of that which is learned in the classroom, but to also provide an equally important moral compass in which a student grows up to navigate his or her world.

Labeling works against this philosophy by stunting natural curiosity and exploration by placing children into tightly sealed boxes.

No, not everyone has access to valuable resources, but everyone has the ability to actualize their potential—if given the chance.

Without accepting the validity of this simple foundation, we have nothing.

Poverty does not translate to stupidity … Yet, somehow, through labeling, we seem to have made it so that it does.

Until next time …

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