EAL, SEN, ASD, ADHD, G&T, Top set, group, stream/bottom set etc, naughty, nice, bright, challenging, success/failure…….
As humans, we like to classify and sort in order to simplify complexities, like the Dewey system in a library, books on a shelf, nicely ordered, are satisfying. Labels on packaging can be informative and useful in deciding whether or not to buy a product. To adopt a well-used advert, “It does what it says…” However, sometimes there is a need to open the tin to have a look at the contents, as there can occasionally be a mix up.
We give children names, providing a life time personal label. We package them into school year groups, regardless of ability or maturity, so they pass through systems with others of the same age and we make expectations of them at certain stages, so developing the potential for a pass/fail mentality, a further label, but one which they could carry throughout their lives.
Learning is complex, as it embeds a range of factors beyond the control of the teacher. Genetics and environment/experiences will all play a part in developing the child before they enter schoolroom. From entry, difference is described. Similarities are used to classify according to ability, with groupings, setting, streaming all being a part of the broader education experience. These labels, accorded early, can influence positively or negatively the child’s expectation of themselves and their success or failure throughout their academic lives. Parents often want to know where their child is in relation to their peers. Hearing that their child is “bright”, in the “upper part of the class”, or ahead in some way provides the basis for positive reinforcement, with the potential for a child receiving an opposing feedback to get negative messages from home and school.
Teacher z says child y has “a problem with reading” and seeks to pass the problem to the SENCo, whose first response will be the issue is likely be to ask for a clear descriptor of the “problem”, including significant details such as phonic knowledge, word recognition skills, reading approaches being shown, comprehension levels and reading material being shared at different levels, fluency and teaching, either as guided reading or one to one. In addition, there is the potential to ask for some kind of simple miscue analysis, a note of errors within reading, some diagnostic assessment of writing skills and interventions. A judgement on oral language supports a broader descriptor.
The easy route can be to globally articulate the problem as dyslexia, which at its root means problems with words. In addition there are also dyscalculia, dyspraxia, ASD and ADHD among others. There is a danger that teachers will “diagnose” a specific difficulty, but, badly communicated can have serious implications for schools and families. This can then be the point where a classroom teacher seeks to pass the problem to ANOther, either the SENCo or a supporting TA, either of which can lead to some diminution of progress within the class, as the child assumes a particular role, a child with a “problem”, needing extra support to progress.
Education likes labels; putting learners into nice neat packages which can then be addressed and/or moved about at the will of the adults in charge. Originally applied to sociological studies of deviant behaviour by Howard Becker in the 1950s and 1960s, the translation to education has provided potential for broader studies of application. According to academic researcher Ray C. Rist, “within the framework of labelling theory…a major emphasis has been placed upon the role of [academic] institutions in sorting, labelling, tracking, and channelling persons along various routes depending upon the assessment the institution has made of the individual”
In other words, children can be labelled on entry to school and carry that label throughout. What is likely to be the impact? Self-esteem is a significant driver in learning; if you feel good about yourself, you are likely to have the capacity to put effort into studying, take considered risks, enjoying the benefits of good feedback and praise. The opposite can also be true.
Two boys entered reception class at the same time. Both were “pickles”. One was exceptionally curious and took things apart to see how they worked, and liked “practical jokes”, the other was into everything and what everyone else was doing. They were described on entry as “having a lot of energy”. Both were in the habit of waking very early and wanting adults as play partners. One family was tolerant of this and found an accommodation. The other described how they got angry and “locked the child in his room”. It became clear very early that we were dealing with a broad set of issues, so class teachers, teaching assistants and the SENCo were detailed to undertake an early assessment of the issues, with the Educational Psychologist and other external agencies contacted. The families followed different routes through support, one to family therapy, the other through medical assessments. Both boys ended with a diagnosis of ADHD and on Ritalin. However, while the practical joker developed focus on learning as a result, the other boy became more difficult. The parents decided that he needed a stronger dose of Ritalin, for them to be able to cope.
Children give each other and teachers nicknames. These can be pleasant as well as hurtful, and in such circumstances, teachers are likely to step in and deal with the hurt. Children also know who’s bright in the class and where their own abilities lie. They compare themselves, favourably or otherwise, with others and can describe accurately where they fit in the scheme of things.
Labels, as far as teachers are concerned, can cause confusion, in that the label in itself implies the need for intervention, but does not automatically suggest the means of remediation. What exactly is needed to address the issues? Here might be a positive use for a descriptor developed through APP (Assessing Pupil Progress), where discrete steps in the learning of English are described. If a clear analysis of current skill level is undertaken, the next learning steps are clearer. If articulated to both the support adult and known through an Individual education Plan (IEP), progress can be monitored at all times. No child should be leaving a classroom for an intervention programme of which the teacher has no knowledge or understanding of how it relates to classroom activity. There is, to me, at least, a strong argument for intervention support within a classroom.
Inappropriate use of levels and grades can provide an additional level of labelling beyond any other organisation. These are shorthand descriptors of the capabilities needed to achieve the grades. While the journey descriptors are essential to progress and the achievement of grades can, for some, be a spur to further progress, non-achievements can diminish effort.
One question where I have never completely come to a satisfactory conclusion is the potential link that I see between teacher –level labelling and a form of name calling, “You are a ….”. Once accorded, some children live to the “accolade”. I’ve met children who articulated that they felt they might as well do the naughty things they were often accused of, as they’d get blamed anyway.
Rist, R. C. (1977) “On Understanding the Processes of Schooling: The Contributions of Labeling Theory.” Exploring Education 2nd Ed. Allyn & Bacon, 2001: 149-157.