I have a love-hate relationship with labels. I understand why we use them when we do, but I feel as though it limits people’s views of whatever or WHOMever is at the receiving end of the label, and you don’t ever see the person for who they really are.
Case in point, when we hear the words “at-risk” student, for many people in education this conjures up the image of a poor Black or Brown kid living in a low-income neighborhood, who doesn’t “speak properly” or “doesn’t know how to read.” Poor kid.
This label makes people either pity the poor at-risk child, and/or falsely view them from a globally deficient perspective. But, the label misses the point that a lot of these children come to school with more resources than society gives them credit for.
Some of these children may be bicultural and/or bi-dialectal, or bilingual. They come to school with more linguistic resources than many educators are aware of and are cognitively flexing their brain more than the monolingual, mono-dialectal child. Many may come from neighborhoods where they’ve learned amazing critical thinking skills that will never be taught within the mainstream educational system.
The reason I know this is because after working in over 15 different schools, I continued to see the same label given to the “same” children over and over again. And while some of their circumstances may have been incredibly challenging and simply unfair, especially for a child, I never saw my kids as being at-risk. What I saw were incredible strengths and resilience.
There are other labels used too that I am not fond of, like: minority, underrepresented, disadvantaged, vulnerable – I mean look at these words, “minor”, “under”, “dis”, they all mean “less than”. How are we ever going to look at these children differently, positively, and with hope, when we continuously label them with negative words.
So when we talk about these children as being disadvantaged, we automatically start the conversation at what they can’t do, what they don’t do, and that’s not productive or beneficial for anyone.
Gloria Ladson-Billings on labeling children “at-risk” “We cannot saddle these babies at kindergarten with this label and expect them to proudly wear it for the next 13 years, and think, “Well, gee, I don’t know why they aren’t doing good.” So if anybody gets it, I know that writing project people know language matters. What you call something matters.”
Another label that conjures up a false image of global deficiency, is “disabled” or “disordered” (see the ‘dis’ again) and for right now, I’m just talking about speech and language issues.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know exactly what these labels mean and I am very well aware that these labels give children the services that they may need to be more successful in a mainstream social and mainstream educational environment. I mean, this is how I made a living for ten years, working as a speech-language pathologist (another label I dislike because people box me in to a small speech and language label; I prefer communication specialist :).
But, again my problem is that the label makes people see the child for that label, “unable to do XYandZ”. The reality is that perhaps the child has a communication disorder, fine, but that is just one aspect of the child, not who they should be labeled as. Most of the time, I realize that these children learn differently and it’s my job to help them figure out how they learn and help them to communicate effectively.
So, I hereby have decided that if we have to have labels, let’s use a label that will hopefully make us understand better the recipient of that label. I suggest MisRepresented.
Here’s a definition taken from Google:
mis·rep·re·sent; misˌreprəˈzent/ verb : to give a false or misleading representation of, usually with an intent to deceive or be unfair <misrepresented the facts> : give a false or misleading account of the nature of.”you are misrepresenting the views of the government”
Notice how the prefix “mis” does not conjure up ideas of deficiency, per se, only suspicion of what is awry. And if we delve further we can see that the false account is how the at-risk child or speech-language disordered child is being misrepresented in the classroom. So, if we talk about these children as being misrepresented as opposed to disadvantaged or disordered, then we can start having the conversation about what is being misrepresented, in my case, of course, it’s their language and learning skills as well as their academic potential.
Now, let’s be honest, is my new term going to catch on? Probably not. But, I do hope it at least has you thinking differently about how we label people and especially our children. Words matter, labels matter, and often times, if we are not careful they can be misunderstood.