Advice Column, Child, Education, Mainstream Education

The problem with labelling children in primary school

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  • Category Advice Column, Child, Education, Mainstream Education

Labelling children, positively or negatively, in any phase of their lives, has a very direct effect on how they view themselves, as well as how they experience the world around them. A useful tool for exploring the effects of social labels on children is, “Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development”.

Approximate Age

Psycho Social Crises

Infant – 18 months

Trust vs Mistrust

18 months – 3 years

Autonomy vs Shame & Doubt

3 – 5 years

Initiative vs Guilt

5 – 13 years

Industry vs Inferiority

13 – 21 years

Identity vs Role Confusion

21 – 39 years

Intimacy vs Isolation

40 – 65 years

Ego Integrity vs Despair


Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development

The developmental phases where children are most affected by social labels would be their schooling years, when they have high frequency interactions with not only their parents, but also other children, teachers, coaches and the like. These would, therefore, be the phases of 5 – 13 years and of 13 – 21 years in age, where their psycho social development hinges on being industrious versus feeling inferior, and establishing identity versus role confusion respectively.

This article focuses on the 5 to 13-year-old phase, which is the contemporary Primary School years of a child. The main and desirable outcome of development in this phase is industriousness. The positive and helpful labels would, therefore, relate to promoting a sense of confidence within children, that they are capable to do “real” things, and do them well if they are prepared to put some effort into it. Helpful areas to work towards would be establishing healthy work ethic habits at home and at school, and then attaching positive social labels to this. For example, assisting a child with a realistic study roster for exams and then positively reinforcing their commitment, dedication and work ethic related to this. I.e. “I love your commitment to your school work”, or “You seem very dedicated to doing well this term”, etc.

It is, however, important to note that the initiative to create opportunities for this kind of “industry” in this age group lies mostly with teachers and parents. My wife, for example, recently tasked our 11-year-old daughter to cook for the family once a week. She was very excited at the opportunity to engage this challenging task, and with some “industriousness” and support from my wife, she now successfully “cooks” for the family once a week. This initiative, taken by my wife, then creates the context for excellent verbal and experiential positive affirmations, related to a very “real” thing. We, as parents and teachers, would therefore do well to create these types of opportunities, and then follow the experiences through with positive affirmations.

The negative labels to avoid in this phase, has to do with verbal affirmations or experiences that may lead to feelings of inferiority. Children in this age group are literally, in body and mind, changing daily as they grow and develop. These kids are well aware of the fact that they are changing, learning and growing. To them, there are very few absolute truths with regards to what they can and can’t do, because after all, they are still learning. Parents and teachers will, therefore, do well to steer away from labels aimed at pointing out areas of inferiority, such as, “You are pathetic”, “You are lazy”, “You are all over the place”, etc. These kind of comments will stifle growth and could become self – fulfilling prophesies if internalised by the child. We need to learn how to put some spin the negative, and find ways to address areas of concern in a manner that honours the developmental aspirations of the child, even if it sometimes feels like an exercise in diplomacy. For example, instead of saying, “You are pathetic”, maybe spin it a bit to something like, “This is not the way I know you, you can do much better”. That will potentially reset the child and allows them a chance to redeem themselves as someone more “industrious”, and possibly even successful in the end.

Authentic parenting, and truthful feedback to our children about their behaviour and the consequences thereof, are critical in raising well-balanced, successful adults. We, as parents and teachers, will however, do well to sharpen our pencils from time-to-time, to ensure that the labels we impress upon our youngsters are geared towards empowering them towards success. This may take a bit of thinking, and a lot of restraint, but they are certainly worth it in the end.

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