What is stigma?

Stigma is a complex social phenomenon that includes elements of stereotyping, discrimination, labelling, exclusion, and loss of status for the person being stigmatized (dosReis, Barksdale, Sherman, Maloney and Charach, 2010). Research has shown that these elements occur in environments where the individuals in power either perpetuate the stigma or allow others to do so. (Ibid., 2010).

Think, Analyze, Reflect

Why might people in power want to perpetuate social stigma and/or allow others to so?

In classroom and school settings, teachers have the responsibility to create an environment where students are accepted, included, and valued. Teachers are instrumental in bringing down barriers and creating a healthy environment where students recognize and value their differences as well as their similarities (Srivastava, Bhat & Walia, 2018).

Students with learning disabilities, social-emotional challenges and/or students who are not from dominant cultural or linguistic groups can suffer academically and emotionally from stigma.

How does stigma affect parents/caregivers?

Experiencing stigma can be extremely damaging to a child’s personal identity as well as their sense of self-worth, and by extension this can happen to family members and caregivers as well. Parents often experience strong emotional reactions if/when their child is identified as of having a learning disability or special needs and may resist a school’s attempts to diagnose these learning challenges due to stigma within the family and/or fear of stigma within the school environment.

If parents are not able to cope with the reality of the diagnosis, this can lead to not only family dysfunction but can affect the ability to make necessary decisions regarding treatment and interventions (Fischbach, Harris, Ballan, Fischbach and Link, 2015).

When parents first receive a diagnosis it is key that they receive clear and factual information and that they see the school as supportive, as this can reduce their concerns, and correct stereotyping. When parents have a clear understanding of their child’s diagnosis it makes it easier when they face stigma from other individuals (Ibid., 2015).

If a parent is unable to accept a child’s diagnosis this can be catastrophic to the child’s well-being; parents might not be able to respond to their child’s emotional signals sensitively and appropriately (Feniger-Schaal and Oppenheim, 2013).

In a study conducted by dosReis et al. (2010), 77% of the parents of students who had been diagnosed with learning disabilities experienced stigma from other family members, from members of the school community and from health care professionals.

40% of the parents surveyed experienced feelings of social isolation and rejection within their community and unfortunately, 21% of them felt that health care professionals and school personnel were dismissive of their concerns regarding their child.

Russell and Norwich (2012) explain that some families fear having their child diagnosed due to the potential of stigma, exclusion, and rejection. Teachers often notice tension by parents who are trying to decide on what to do about their child’s special educational needs, facing the drawbacks of stigma and isolation, but also missing out on treatment and special services, such as educational resources e.g one to one support (Ibid., 2012). Parents have to weigh their decision on maintaining a ‘normal’ life or recognizing that their child has differences; receiving a diagnosis has even been compared to the stages of mourning (Feniger-Schaal and Oppenheim, 2013).

Reflection question

Knowing that many parents have experienced stigma and are concerned with how society views them, what are some things that you could do as a classroom teacher to reduce stigma and make parents feel more comfortable in the school and classroom?

Types of stigma

Research conducted by Tekola, Kinfe, Girma, Hanlon, and Hoekstra (2020), identify three common forms of stigma experienced by parents:

Public stigma:  Parents, teachers or school personnel assume things that are not true or not substantiated. For example, they may assume a child is violent when the child behaves contrarily. This assumption leads to exclusion and not being accepted. This is sometimes a result of by fear caused by parent misunderstanding and by parents and staff being ill-informed. Another form of public stigma can be seen and felt when parents see looks of pity, staring, and have to respond to inappropriate questions from other parents..

Courtesy stigma: Parents experience social stigma along with their stigmatized child (Cheng Chang et al., 2020). Parents can be been blamed and socially excluded because other parents might not want their children to be associated with the stigmatized child and they might fear their own loss of status in their communities (Tekola et al., 2020).

Affiliate stigma: Parents isolate themselves because in some cases, they feel ashamed as well as embarrassed (Cheng Chang et al., 2020). In other cases, they fear the prospect of stigma based on past negative experiences (Tekola et al., 2020).

Gender alert: There is research that shows that mothers (Russell and Norwich, 2012) and female caregivers experience more stigma than males do (Cheng Chang et al., 2020). They are more often blamed for neglecting their duty to instruct their child to behave and mothers are usually the ones to interact with other parents, who are one of the main causes of stigma towards parents of children with ADHD (Ibid., 2020).


One of the main reasons stigma exists is due to misunderstanding and not being well informed of incorrect stereotyping. With a partner discuss what can be done in your community to raise awareness of these misconceptions.

Stigma at school and in the classroom

There are multiple consequences a stigmatized environment can have on a child’s mental health.

  • Children are often excluded, discriminated against, and bullied because of their differences (Earnshaw., 2018).
  • Children experience multiple forms of aggression such as physical (e.g., punching), verbal (e.g., name-calling) and social (e.g., exclusion), this can then have a negative effect on their psychological and physical health (Ibid., 2018).

Mueller, Feurmaier, Koerts, and Tucha (2012) concluded that there is more stigma directed towards children with mental health or behavioural issues than children with medical or physical conditions because children with mental health challenges are perceived to be more in control and responsible for their condition.

Children with disabilities are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be bullied than their peers without any disabilities (Earnshaw., 2018). Research has shown that stigma based bullying such as bullying based on sexual orientation, race, religion, sex/gender, or disability has a greater negative effect on children’s mental health (e.g., depression and suicidal thoughts) as well as having a negative effect on their academic achievement and motivation, than children experiencing non-stigma based bullying  (Ibid., 2018). When children are being rejected by their peers and those peers have negative beliefs towards that child’s abilities and behaviours that can affect the child’s self-efficacy, self-esteem, and motivation (Mueller et al., 2012).


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Gender Alert: A study about children’s attitudes towards peers with ADHD by Law, Sinclair, and Fraser (2007) concluded that peers are more accepting of disruptive behaviour when they are exhibited by boys and are less accepting when girls exhibit such behaviour. Children are more likely to give negative peer ratings toward girls exhibiting ADHD-associated behaviour than when boys exhibit the same behaviour (Mueller et al., 2012).

When parents and teachers are not able to see past the lens of a child’s disability, they might struggle to see the needs of the child beyond their diagnosis such as playtime and unstructured time (Feniger-Schaal and Oppenheim, 2013). When parents are not fully accepting of the possibility of a diagnosis or the diagnosis itself and trying to hold on to a ‘normal’ this can affect the child’s life in many negative ways such as mental health problems due to limited family support, lack of personalized education due to the absence of special services and lack of treatment. Societies concepts on gender roles can aggravate social bias against girls with ADHD who don’t fit the gender stereotypes and increase the likelihood of affiliate stigma in families with girls who have ADHD (Chang et al., 2020).

Time and Support

After a diagnosis, parents begin to understand and accept the strengths and challenges within their child and start to think of the diagnosis in a more positive light. This is when the de-stigmatization process happens. Bumiller (2009) describes a wider ‘autistic culture’ of parents who are attempting to shift the societal view of ASD from a negative view to a positive one, highlighting the strengths of children with ASD dubbed the ‘autistic advantage’ (Bumiller, 2009; Russell and Norwich, 2012).

Parents can start to become advocates for their child’s disability, changing their world view. They may create communities for other parents seeking knowledge and advice, advocate for re-appropriating terms to affirm a positive difference, raise awareness in their communities, and widen the spectrum by spotting children who might not be noticed as being on the spectrum. Parents of diagnosed children can take control, change the narrative and help de-stigmatize society’s views on disabilities (Ibid., 2012).l

There are many things teachers can do to limit stigma inside the classroom. Teachers can prevent stigma-based bullying by teaching their students about acceptance and inclusivity. Not just inclusivity about disability but about sexual orientation, race, religion, sex/gender as well, these are all important topics for students to have knowledge about.

Another key factor that leads to destigmatization is the acquisition of information and knowledge (Russel and Norwich, 2012). Teachers can talk with students about inaccurate stereotypes, and provide them with factual information (Smith and Applegate, 2018). One of the reasons stigma exists is due to misunderstandings such as the belief that every person on the Autism spectrum is non-verbal and a savant.

These misunderstandings are partly due to media portrayal (Draaisma, 2009). In movies or tv shows a person with ASD is often portrayed as someone that is non-verbal, very literal, genius, etc, and usually male. Teachers can challenge these stereotypes by reading and sharing stories with competing narratives and by providing students with opportunities to interact with members of stigmatized groups. Meeting people from stigmatized groups can have a lasting impact on reducing stigma-related behaviours (Ibid., 2009). Inviting people from stigmatized groups to come to speak to the classroom about their experiences can educate students about the importance of understanding and inclusivity.

Another way of creating inclusion is to invite older students with different learning challenges into the classroom to talk about their experiences and give advice. This gives the older students a chance to advocate and gives younger students the chance to hear about their experiences in the classroom,  to realize that they don’t have to be embarrassed to ask for help and to believe that they can thrive at school.

Key Takeaways

  • Normalize learning differences, asking for help, and the use of learning aids.
  • Encourage discussion and asking questions.
  • Make sure the classroom is a safe space where students can feel comfortable and understood by supporting their individual learning processes (Molbaek, 2017).



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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by room305 and Inclusive Education Class 2020-2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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