The Dangers of Labeling a Child

Once a child enters the worlds of medicine, psychology and psychiatry, they are labeled with a diagnosis the practitioner believes most closely fit’s the child’s condition or behavior. Unfortunately, children are often labeled with such disorders as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), or Autism long before the child is old enough for the professional to make an accurate diagnosis.

Documentation of that diagnosis in the child’s medical record consists of a code to represent that diagnosis. Unfortunately, these codes are not always specific to the exact problem, but must be used to bill for their services, and are often required in order to acquire certain therapies or to pay for prescribed medications. This “label” may be needed on documentation for the purposes mentioned above, but it should not become the child’s identity.

Upon entering the educational system, these labels become a part of the child’s permanent school record, often seen by staff long before they meet the child. The school accepts that the label is correct and expectations and standards are set for the child based on that information. Even though such records are confidential, this information is often relayed to others within the school who are not currently involved in the child’s education, and stereotypes and prejudices develop – all before anyone has direct contact with the child.

All of a sudden, Johnny is not Johnny, Johnny is “that Autistic boy” or “that ADHD kid”. Labels have prompted the educational system to see Johnny as a diagnosis, not as an individual. The diagnosis that was used to identify the symptoms is now being used to identify the child.

An Individualized Education Program is developed by those directly responsible for Johnny’s education. Others, who may have never met Johnny, become involved to decide the direction his education will take and what services they will provide. Often the focus is on Johnny’s limitations, and provides lowered expectations based on the clinical description of what a person with his particular “label” can or can not accomplish.

Such labels provide a reason that the child may not be learning according to educational standards. Rather than looking for ways the educational system may be failing the child, the child is blamed because of their labeled disorder. Professionals may choose to follow preconceived misconceptions of the condition instead of getting to know Johnny personally and assessing his strengths and weaknesses first-hand.

Once a child is assigned a label, those involved in his medical, psychological and educational development tend to accept it as a correct diagnosis and, therefore, fail to look for other sources or solutions. Children who have been labeled with learning disabilities have later been found to have poor hearing or eyesight by conscientious and caring professions who cared enough to question labels and to look for alternative causes. Through various types of intervention, a child may have improved to the point that the label does not accurately reflect their condition or behavior.

Johnny’s self-worth and security is undermined by the educational system and the child accepts the label whether it is accurate or not. The child lowers his own expectations for what he can accomplish, and learns to also blame himself or his disorder.

Harmful labeling of children’s behavior or intelligence does not stop with learning disabilities. Children labeled as “gifted” or that score high on IQ tests often face elevated expectations from our school systems. Failure to meet those expectations may result in a poor self image or other more complex emotional problems.

These disability labels have been allowed to define the human being. People see only the negative associated with the symptoms of the disability, rather than seeing the individual as a person. They have been allowed to inflict long-term harm to the emotional well-being of many children.

Unfortunately, the labels will continue to exist, but we must insist that professionals learn to see the child and their individual needs first. As parents, we must insist that those directly involved with our children’s development look beyond the labels.