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.