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Does What It Says On The Tin?

Labels are certainly useful. Baking a chocolate cake would be slightly hazardous if we did not know which tin contained the cocoa powder and which one the gravy browning.  The results could be deadly if the local pharmacy received all their drugs in unlabelled boxes.

 

Labels can be very powerful, especially when linked to clever marketing. It always fascinates me that some young children who show no interest in text or any signs of readiness for reading can often recognise words such as McDonalds or Tesco.

 

Labels can be dangerous. As adults we often trust sources of information when they have particular labels on them and this can lead to trouble when these labels are used by fraudsters.

 

Labels can be mysterious.  How often do we long to see what is behind the fence of an area labelled keep out? How much do we long to know the content of a letter or document which is marked strictly confidential?

 

Labels can be life-saving. None of us would readily open a container labelled as hazardous waste. It keeps us safe to have a swimming pool labelled at points with its depth.

 

Labels can be comforting.  Many of us stick for years to the same tried and tested brands and panic when they are no longer available. It can raise our confidence levels at an event to be wearing a particular brand of clothing that we think suits us.

 

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Labels are, of course, linked to our use of language and are very influential. From professionally created brand names to the everyday use of adjectives, labels can shape how we use and think about things. Think about a street where two families live next door to a household with three large dogs. On one side the adults describe them as ‘lovely dogs’ and are happy to let their children stroke them and throw toys for them to retrieve. The neighbours on the other side have little experience of dogs and they tell their young children to keep away from the ‘scary dogs’. The young children of that family are nervous about walking past the house and cower when the dogs start barking. Both families are describing the same dogs, but the children will grow up with different views not just of their neighbours’ dogs, but very possibly of all dogs well into their lifetime.

 

Labels, however, are not only applied to objects but very often are applied to people – sometimes by themselves and sometimes by others. Sometimes these labels are applied intentionally and sometimes unintentionally but they will influence how others perceive us and how we feel about ourselves. Labels can improve our self-confidence or can weigh us down with depressing baggage. Those of us who work with young children need to bear this in mind on a daily basis.  Young children are impressionable and some of the ways we think about ourselves as children are extremely difficult to reframe as we get older. It is very easy to inadvertently label children as we speak to colleagues and, while we may not apply this labelling directly with children, it will impact the way we work as a team, communicating with them and their families. Whilst it is important to be careful about the language we use with and in front of children, we are also in a position where we can encourage them to take on positive labels for themselves and discourage them from taking on board the negative. As children we would recite the old adage, ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’, but I think we all realised, deep down, that this was not true. It is misleading and we should never under-estimate the effect that words can have.

 

One of the labels that I carried around for a very long time was ‘accident prone’.  It still follows me today, just a few weeks ago on a family walk my mother was trying to make my son feel better about breaking something by telling him how many cups and glasses I broke as a child. As I developed through adulthood I gradually began to realise that this was something that did not really define me. The label had led to the idea becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.  I began to understand that small accidents and incidents that would have been forgotten if they happened to someone else began to become part of my story and narrative that backed up the ‘clumsy’ label.  As an educationalist I came to understand that all children can have periods of clumsiness as they grow and develop through different phases. As an adult I wasn’t particularly prone to breaking things and could work, decorate, sew and play sports with adequate control and dexterity. I would like to point out that this label was never applied to me in a cruel way and was part of humorous family conversations.  However, I do think that on reflection, there are things that I am slightly hesitant about carrying out and things I am nervous about handling because of the long term impact of being labelled ‘accident prone’.  On the other hand, there have been times when I have used this part of my narrative to my advantage in training or social situations.  When I have needed an amusing anecdote about myself, it has come in handy to quickly be able to recall when I fell in a coal hole, almost sunk a boat and accidently drilled a hole in the classroom table!

 

I am concerned at some of the labels that are being used for children and young people in the current crisis. I am worried that being described as the “Covid generation’, the generation who need to ‘catch up’, or the group who ‘missed school’ will impact on how they perceive themselves as learners. I am not saying that the pandemic has not had a detrimental impact on the education of our young, but I am certain that, with the right support, the experience of these past few months does not need to define who they are and what they can achieve. We somehow need to help them to look at what potential they have and not focus solely on what they have missed. We need to find a rhetoric which motivates them to identify and seize the possibilities and opportunities in life.

 

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Using appropriate labels to describe groups of children and learners has always been problematic, precisely because we want to avoid a situation where it leads to them feeling like they have failed in some way or are not as successful as others in their peer group. Terms such as ‘remedial’ and ‘lower set’ have been replaced with phrases such as ‘catch up’, ‘closing the gap’ and ‘support groups’.  Nonetheless, I think we need to ask ourselves constantly whether the language we are using is still suitable.  In the early years many of us have used the term ‘emerging’ rather than ‘below expected’ because it feels kinder and indicates that progress is being made. However, after a while any phrase begins to carry with it connotations, and we need to re-evaluate the words we use on a regular basis.

 

In my view, the standards agenda that has been prominent in our education system has led to an increase in negative labelling. Testing and measuring at the level that currently happens encourages competition and leaves us trying to find ways to describe those who are reaching goals and those who are not. As the EYFS undergoes reform, I very much welcome the move back to trusting professional judgement and the move away from reliance on data driven assessment. This will take time to embed, and practitioners will need opportunities for excellent professional development to build both their understanding of child development and confidence in their own judgements. It is my great hope that the early years sector will become awash with professionals who are experts in observational assessment and who are able to identify the amazing things that all children can do. 

 

On reflection, whilst the use of appropriate and positive language matters greatly, it is not going to make a difference on its own.  With a real change of viewpoint and approach we can give all children the support needed to achieve, not by looking at what they can’t do, but by looking at each individual and recognising their differing strengths and starting points. We can then build on what children know and introduce them to new ideas, skills and knowledge in a timely manner which is appropriate to their own rate of growth and development. Surely, this could put us in a position where we are not spending as much effort struggling to find words or phrases to label those who do not meet the requirements of the standard norm and instead dedicate that time to truly enriching the lives and educational experience of this ‘covid capable-generation’.

 

Leslie Patterson

Educational Consultant

Finding the Magic in the Early Years

 


 
Leslie Patterson
Leslie is a freelance early years consultant. She was Headteacher of a maintained Nursery School for almost eleven years, where she focused on improving teaching and learning and the Nursery went from Satisfactory to Outstanding. Leslie became a National Leader of Education and the Nursery School became a lead school of a teaching school alliance. Leslie is involved in professional development and supporting schools and settings. She also has many years of experience in teaching and leadership roles in primary schools.



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