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Labels Affect Children’s Behavior

by Joe Lawrence | March 23rd, 2016 | Behavior, Elementary

siblingsThe first day of school for me was not always the most exciting. It had very little to do with first day jitters as much as it did being the youngest of five children. Every single year, starting with the fourth grade, I anxiously awaited this question: “Do you have a …?”

If they teacher finished this question with …sister, I was good to go. When the question ended with …brother, I wanted to run and hide. Apparently, my older brothers were quite the handful, and they really knew how to get under the skin of the teachers. However, I guess I should be thankful because I always got to sit toward the front of the room and sometimes even right next to the teacher.

What I learned early on was that labels can easily define you. I found that in the classes where the teachers compared me to my smart and well-behaved sister, I did very well. In the classes where I was labeled a trouble maker just from my last name, I tended to live up to that name more than I would have otherwise.

When we allow others to place a label on ourselves or our children, we have the tendency to live up to that label. All through my grad degree, I had to constantly take personality tests and quizzes and then discuss how what they taught me. What I learned was that once the quiz ended and we all had our labels, people actually acted differently. They started to live up to their labels.

When children are labeled smart or funny, they strive to live up to that title. When I told my daughter she was a good artist, she went out of her way to do more and more projects. A simple leadership principle is that you reward the behavior you want repeated. Labels do that just like stickers on a chart. When children are told they are bad, they will continue to live up to their label.

I realized the impact this label-effect had on me around the seventh or eighth grade and was able to consciously overcome it, but it was not easy. I had to try really hard to remind myself who I was and not what my label read. We are not all this fortunate to have had to peel these stickers off since a young age, but we can start now.

If our children or even ourselves get stuck with a label we do not like, we have to change this. This happens by seeking small victories to erase the stigma. For example, if labeled as bad, then when your child does something kind, go out of your way to celebrate it. Eventually, these small victories will lead to a more positive label.

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