By Chris Croll
Special Education. Gifted. English Language Learner. Economically Disadvantaged. These and other labels are routinely assigned to children so they can qualify for special services at school. But do these labels actually help our kids to receive a better education or do they place limits on what others believe the child is capable of accomplishing?
As the head of an organization that serves parents raising children who are gifted—a label we parents of asynchronous kids greatly dislike—I am concerned that a label of any kind places limits on a child. Labels put children in a proverbial box and what we tell a child they will be is what they will be.
Why do we label children anyway?
Some believe using labels can be freeing. If the child—and the adults and children around them at school—understand that the child’s behavior is attributable to a condition or diagnosis or set of circumstances, the child may feel less anxious about being different from his peers. I’ve seen this to be true for children who experience the over-excitabilities that accompany giftedness. It’s reassuring to the precocious child to understand that their quirks are part and parcel with having high intelligence.
The problem is, labels stick.
Having everyone see the child through a particular lens can impact the child’s ability to transcend the limitations assigned to that label. For example, research shows that if a child is found to require special education services at school, they are less likely to be identified as gifted. People are naturally conditioned to make assumptions about the student’s abilities based on the confines of the label assigned to them. In this sense, labels can be a double-edged sword.
At school students are often labeled so they can be grouped with other children with similar needs to achieve economies of scale in providing education services. But no two children are truly alike. So, is this grouping even effective? Until personalized learning plans are offered for each and every student—including custom curricula that meet each student at their ability level in every subject—grouping students by arbitrary characteristics (including age, one could argue) remains a sub-optimal solution.
Once personalized learning is widely adopted by schools, labels become less relevant. A student learning English as a second language can proceed at a pace and using tools that are most effective for them. A student requiring extra support in reading can access content that helps bolster those skills. A student requiring a higher level of math can cruise through introductory content at a faster pace. By modifying content, process, pace, depth, assessment, environment and other components of learning, we can eliminate the need to sort students into any type of categories.
Whether you believe labels ultimately help or hurt, our children need to know from parents and from their teachers that they are more than any label suggests. Kids are multidimensional beings with ideas, skills, dreams and emotions that transcend the tidy little boxes in which we adults put them. Deepak Chopra says, “To define yourself is to limit yourself. Without labels, you remain the infinite being.” Isn’t our goal as parents and educators to help our children to remain infinite beings?
Chris Croll is a parenting consultant specializing in educating and raising gifted and twice-exceptional children. She leads the National Center for Gifted Services (NationalCenterforGiftedServices.com) and the nonprofit Loudoun County Parents of Gifted Students (LoCoPOGS.org).