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What’s in a Label? Moving Beyond Behavior Labels

July 12th, 2016     By Steph Jensen, MS, LPC, Boys Town National Training

Parenting Skills, Understanding Behavior

Disrespectful, rude, defiant, lazy, inappropriate, irresponsible and out-of-control are all common labels we may be quick to assign to children exhibiting challenging behaviors. While these labels may be correct in describing our perceptions of their difficult behaviors, they are rarely an accurate assessment of the child who is engaging in them. Childhood, by definition, is a time of change, challenges and growth. Children are experiencing many physical, mental and emotional changes as they progress through their natural growth and development. They are also in the process of learning how to cope with, adapt and relate to others and the world around them.

During this tumultuous time, children may engage in impulsive, irrational and hurtful behaviors. This is not a reflection on the child, but rather a natural progression toward maturity. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, in addition to the expected challenges of childhood development, one in five school-age children have a diagnosable mental health disorder. One in 10 youth have serious mental health problems that are severe enough to impair how they function at home, in school or in the community. Educators and parents are an invaluable resource for facilitating kids’ development academically and behaviorally.

Here are tips to decoding common labels we use with kids and their behavior:

  • Be Careful, They Stick: Have you ever tried to remove a label from a can or jar that you wanted to keep or reuse? It’s a sticky business isn’t it? You can try ripping it off, soaking it, washing it and even pull out the Goo-Gone, but you might still be left with some of that sticky label! We need to keep this in mind when we are labeling behaviors — especially when we are tempted to use behavioral labels. Labels like lazy, disrespectful, rude and out-of-control are hard to remove once they are stuck to a child, and the removal is often painful for the child and the adults working with him or her.
  • Sometimes They’re Wrong: Recently, I was making green bean casserole and was surprised when the can labeled green beans was actually full of corn! This can made it through the factory, through quality control and into my pantry without anyone noticing the mistake. When we are working with kids and labels, we need to remember that sometimes the original label was a mistake. What we label as rude or disrespectful might actually be a response to trauma. What was labeled lazy or defiant might actually have been an inability to see the board or make sense of letters. The contents of our kids can change over time as they develop. As our kids develop, we need to make sure that we are reevaluating and changing any labels or plans assigned to them.

When it comes to behavior, it may be more helpful to use descriptions rather than labels. Describing behavior is more specific than labeling and communicates what you can actually see. For example, rather than using a label like lazy, discuss what you see. Use something like, “Amanda, I noticed that you weren’t working on your math homework when you got home. Instead you had your head down on the kitchen table. Is there something wrong?” Being more specific about describing the actual behavior you see may help you see beyond the label and get to the true problem. In the case of Amanda, you may find out that she’s having trouble with her boyfriend and that she’s been struggling to sleep lately.

As with any tool, labels can be used to help improve the situation or make it much worse. When labels are appropriately applied to a behavior rather than the child behind the behavior, we can help our kids succeed. Let these tips help labels work for you and your kids instead of against everyone involved!




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