The power of “labels” in education

There can be power in labels, both positive or negative because labels can predetermine beliefs and expectations about people, a phenomenon that is often referred to as the “pygmalion principle.” While this article is primarily about learning disabilities in a school context (no matter what th learning level), it can also relate to an employment situation and the point that people are much more than a label.

Unfortunately, most children and adults, no matter what type of educational program they are in, if they need accommodations they need to be formally assessed. And, being formally evaluated puts a label on that individual — often for life. Is that fair? Is that the only way we can get help for people? And, why does it matter? What those children and adults and their families are trying to avoid is the “pygmalion principle” — how the expectations of others can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

That term comes out of a 1960’s study by Rosenthal and Jacobson that proved what you tell a teacher (or anyone else) is the kind of results you’ll get. For example, while the students were chosen randomly, some teachers were told their students were gifted (spurters) when in actual fact they were not. Yet, they excelled as though they were. Similarly, another teachers were told their students were slow developers. As expected, those students didn’t perform as well. In all cases, the labels (what teachers expected) resulted in a type of self-fulfilling prophecy.

In my opinion, we need to find a way to accept people exactly as they are, while simultaneously providing educational intervenion help where it is needed. It should not be essential to link that help with a diagnosis. Since resource help is available in all schools today and since most, if not all, colleges and univerities have special needs departments, why is it necessary to attach a negative “label” to someone — a label that could affect outcomes.

Not likely some might say. Well, I managed a private special education practice when I was teaching university and I saw far too many capable students with dyslexia be denied appying towards a Master’s degree because of the label — and the attitude “it will be too hard for you.”  

However, while it may be possible for some individuals and their families to resist the pygmalion principle (labels), someone with a severe disability like autism, may not be able to. In those cases, it simply does not make sense, nor is it humane, to deny their reality. However, it is equally true that we should be very careful about labels that tend to predetermine what a person can or cannot do.  And, when someone we know and love does have a diagnosed disability, whenever possible, we need to avoid placing either unrealistic or diminished expectations on them.


14 thoughts on “The power of “labels” in education

  1. Joanne — I just read this post and linked it to the end of my first paragraph. I really had no idea this neuro-diversity crowd was so intent on ruining the availability for services. It is truly disgusting. It is political correctness and a “there is nothing wrong with us — in fact we are actually better than everyone else” ideology gone amuck. It is insulting to every person born with with a developmental disability. Harold has a new post up today with a letter to Health Minister Tony Clement. Someone actually went to the parliamentary committee to say the federal gov’t SHOULD NOT fund any behavioural therapy services. Unbelievable and sad if it weren’t also so tragic.


  2. My biggest concern for my son is the fact that he is now 18 with no job, no drivers license, and only a vague idea of what he wants to do. It is frustrating what to do for him. He was diagnosed at 2 years old with “receptive language disorder”. He had extensive therapy until he reached school age. When he entered Grade 1 he had a teacher aide. By Grade 3 they had cut out all programs for him. Does that mean he is cured? As far as behavior is concerned, he is pretty good. What I would really like is to have him reassessed and maybe get him in some good programs that will help him in developing some social skills that will encourage him to either continue secondary school or get a job that he likes. Right now he sits and watches TV or wonders around town. We live in a small community. I am worried that he will get into trouble, as we have already had a few incidents with the local police. Where can we get help?


  3. April — I have moved this article to my first page so you can find it easier. First, let me say that I completely understand your situation as I have been there myself. See the story of my son here.

    Now, I am retired and no longer in private practice which means I no longer have professional liability insurance. So, I can’t give you any specific advice. But, I can be general.

    I don’t know what province you live in but the best advice I could give you would be to become an advocate. Don’t depend on anyone else to help your son because, in the long run, it’s not going to happen. Discouraging but true. But, with you doing the advocating, you can find things that work for you and your son.

    Each case is different. My son, while high functioning, has never held a competitive job and he is forty-two. But, he has been married to a woman who has developmental and physical disabilities and takes care of her like a health care aide would. While I still help them with budgeting and money management, he does their shopping and housework, etc. Which means he is a productive member of society and we are very proud of him.

    What he also does a couple of times a week is volunteer at a seniors home (for a few hours each time). He goes with them on outings and helps the more fragile folks to the dining room, etc. pushing their wheet chair, etc. He also sits and talks with them and they love him for it.

    Now, your first place to go would be to the psychologist or special needs people at your board of education. Until he is 21, he is still under the jurisdiction of the school system. They have a responsibility to do something.

    Next, if you want him re-tested, the school board would be a good place to start. Or, pay for an assessment yourself. It’s expensive, but worth it because you can control the time lines.

    Then, once he is finished school, you need to get disability funding if he can’t complete a college or apprenticeship program, such as short order cook, landscaping, etc.

    In Ontario, it is called ODSP, the Ontario Disability Support Program. Each province has an equivalent. An up-to-date assessment is essential. ODSP has job training programs and maintenance — money to live on. A single would receive $930.00 a month plus prescriptions and other medical benefits.

    Another place to go is the Learning Disability Association. There would be an office somewhere near you. Make an appointment to talk to a resource counsellor and they can give you many ideas that would be helpful.

    Hope this information helps. And, good luck.

    Canadian Learning Disability Association

    Ontario Learning Disability Association

    Applying for ODSP benefits (one of my own posts)

    Remember — No one will do anything automatically. You have to advocate for everything. I am now trying to get both my son and daughter-in-law in a supportive housing program. I have been helping them fight for this for three years and only recently they were finally put on a waiting list. But, while they’re waiting, I get him to phone every few months to keep them in people’s minds. It’s a lifelong struggle and I am retired now, so worry about the future. Which is why they need to be in a supportive situation. Your son may be able to work and be self-supporting. I don’t know. Each case is different. I mention my situation only to show you that the advocacy for a learning disabled child is lifelong and you may need to advocate every step of the way.


  4. Sandy
    Thank you so much for responding. This is what I am looking for. Someone who has been down this road. We live in Manitoba so I am not sure what is available at this stage. Like I said, my son was diagnosed in Winnipeg at the age of 2 because he was not speaking. He has had a long history of ear infections which required ear tubes twice. The thing I noticed about him was the opposite of what you mention. He hardly ever cried or screamed even when blood was coming out his ears.
    When he was finally diagnosed he was referred to Manitobans with disabilites (SMD) and he was put in a pre-k program with deaf children where they were able to monitor his hearing every month.
    Like I said, at the beginning he was given lots of assessments and therapy. Now that he is an adult, I am concerned for him. He is high functioning, which is what makes people not realize. He doesn’t have any visible characteristics like Downs syndrome.
    Anyway, thanks for the advice and I think I will approach the SMD again and see what they have available for adults. I agree that my starting point has to be re-assessment. They told us his problem was a birth defect but they never did any CT or MRI scans. I get no help from the local Dr. We moved from Winnipeg to a small town and that’s where we made a mistake concerning this situation.
    Thanks again. We wish you and your family a happy holiday season. Best wishes.
    April and Kyle


  5. I just re-published this article (July 25th, 2008). If there is anything further previous visitors would like to add. Since the comment feature is programmed to turn off after a certain amount of time, I have just turned them back on.

    April, Mary T. just left a comment for you here.

    Update: Which is now posted below as well.


  6. MaryT Says:
    July 26th, 2008 at 11:17 am
    This is for April in above post. April, Sandy is 100% right in her response. I would just add, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Never give up, never take NO for an answer. We have been the the School of the Deaf in Winnipeg on several occassions, taking advantage of their immersion program.
    Help is out there.
    Re labelling. One problem that many parents have is the teachers expectations of students coming from the same family. If the oldest was slow, or average, the next one gets treated the same, and if the first one is an above average student, teacher expects the sibling to be the same. This also goes for problem students, disruptive students or whatever. And it is especially true when a teacher has been around for a long time, and taught one or both parents, as was common in rural schools. I am glad to see that parents are coming out with the problems they face/faced with their special needs child. You are not alone, but until you bring your problem out, no one knows. Help is out there and somebody here will help you find it.


  7. Parents might want to contact the Canadian P’Tach Society ( 416-789-0080) for information about federal income tax account credits if their children have ADD, learning disabilities, physical or mental disabilities, etc. I’m not really sure about what is involved–something to do with your income tax credits. Could be worthwhile for those who have to pay for private education and/or resources.


  8. Educ8m — We have looked into that and it is only for severely disabled children/dependents. In fact, in the last ten years the Revenue Canada Agency has made it even more difficult. We are able to transfer the disability deduction from our son to us on Line 318, but even that is getting harder to do. The criteria for income tax is quite a bit different than to qualify for provincial disability support programs — to the point where the federal agency requires a dependent who is deemed disabled to be bed ridden or the equivalent.


  9. Educ8m — But if anyone knows something I don’t, then I would appreciate hearing about it so I can share it with others through this blog.


  10. I’m looking into it and will get more information. In the meantime, interested readers can contact that charitable organization directly for information about their particular circumstances.


  11. I have spoken with the people at the P’tach Society (which stands for parents, teachers and childrent)and they have a much better record at getting the tax credits than a person alone will. They are free and only ask for a donation if you get any money back from the government, for which you will receive a tax receipt. As each individual situation differs, I suggest that it can’t hurt to ask them what they can do for you. They also act on behalf of adults.

    For parents who have forked out a lot of money for tutoring, special schooling, and other things, it couldn’t hurt to find out if you can get some tax relief back. I’m not endorsing them per se, just passing on the information and the rest is up to the individual.


  12. Educ8m — Thanks for this information. I have been in e-mail contact with the society and will write something in due course. I cannot endorse any one organization either but once I have the Internet data on the P’tach Society I can add it to my header bar under “Parent Resources.”

    I might also write a post if that would be helpful to parents and/or appropriate.


Comments are closed.