History of labelling

Hand in hand with education often comes labelling. Especially in international education Yet, not always, is there the possibility to raise awareness for it. Within special education, labelling is often found super important to support the students in the right way for example. Boyle (2014) stated that: “The notion of labelling in special education has two main purposes: 1) to provide reasonable access to extra support within the standard school system for those that are deemed to require it; 2) to indicate a cohort of needs and/or learning styles that can inform and strengthen teaching practice. (Boyle, 2014)

Labels have defined society for as long as we can remember. It impacts the way humans dress, behave and how they treat others inevitably. How people perceive you, has a crucial impact on the way you express yourself. (Boyle, 2014) According to Goffman (1963) being diagnosed with a disability meant that you were stigmatised instantly, for life, which influenced the way society treated you. Individualistic differences make humans stand out from the crowd. Within most bureaucratic systems, this insinuates the so-called “determination” for labelling. “Large systems are not built to work in any other way so we should not be surprised that labelling in special education is an essential aspect of many governmental systems, which categorise need.” (Boyle, 2014)

However, labels have not looked the same and have become more and more detailed over time. If we go back to the Roman Imperial, for example, we see fewer categories. Often used to find a reason for exclusion and discrimination for people that did not fit in. (Laes, 2018) This explains why the labels have changed and become more detailed;


Members of the LGBTQ+ communities used to be classified as people with a disability. How might this connect to the diagnostic labels we use today?

Laes (2018) stated; “Measuring ourselves by ancient standards, therefore, we would have fewer disabilities, while the ancient world would have many more if measure according to the modern views. Therefore, investigating the past of labelling is experienced as quite challenging.

Besides the fact that the process of labelling with specific labels has changed, the support has changed as well. “Children and youth with disabilities have historically received unequal treatment in the public education system. Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, parents and advocates for students with disabilities began to use the courts in an attempt to force states to provide an equal educational opportunity for these students. These efforts were very successful and eventually led to the passage of federal legislation to ensure these rights.  (Yell, Rogers, & Rogers, 1998)

Around the same time, Professor Leo Kanner, a Child Psychiatrist in the USA, did research about the developments of special education around the globe. He found out that: “In the USA there was The Institution for the Feebleminded Youth in Ohio, (1857), in Belgium there was an asylum created for 270 children who were deemed to be idiots and epileptics and who were divided into ‘improvables’ and ‘nonimprovables'(1892). In Italy, the first school was created for ‘mental defectives’ (1889) and in 1898 there was the creation of the National League for the Protection of Backward Children, which indicates an interest in child welfare (Kanner, 1963).” (Boyle, 2014).

Nowadays, to provide support for their students, schools are often required to diagnose their students for them to receive additional funding. Nevertheless, does this mean that it is correct and effective in the education sphere? After emphasizing what someone is struggling with, shifting focus to the individuals’ strengths is considered difficult. (Blum & Bakken, 2010; Boyle, 2014)

This highlights the importance of creating understanding among educators. Raising awareness for the limitations that can occur of negative labelling will support the people whom it affects. “Teachers are best placed to focus on the strengths of their students and thus develop individual programmes which accentuate their individual strengths, irrespective of a label.” (Boyle, 2014)

“If the use of the label does not lead to improved, or more appropriate and targeted educational intervention, then one may legitimately question its value.” (Boyle, 2014)

In our textbook we wanted most of our content to come from people with real hands-on experience with inclusion in international schools so that you can get more than just our opinions and what you are able to find online.  Because of this, we have curated the detailed accounts of a multitude of educators’ experience with inclusion.  The majority of our content will come from interviews or questionnaires of people employed in present or past in the world of international education.  We hope you enjoy this “inside look”

The Advantages of Labelling in the Classroom

One of the main reasons that we label so-called ‘disabilities’ in the classroom is to be able to help students by offering specific, well suiting, often individual, support. As Söder (1989) mentioned: “Theories of labelling have been quite influential in forming the ideological basis for ‘non‐labelling’ policies such as integration and normalization. But the ideological use of such theories often seems to disregard some of the basic insights of those theories.”

When talking about basic insights of those theories we mean the support we would like to offer as educators. Not only is getting individual help important short-term, but it will also be defining for the development of the student in later phases of life. Obviously, someone’s ‘label’ does not immediately define their needs. Yet, in this case, it can be beneficial for the school environment. It allows the student, home and school to connect and think about various suitable ways to continue learning.


We all look at the specific needs of the students in the class we work with and based on this, we adapt the way we teach our lessons. What would the impact on be on you as an educator, if labelling did not exist? Would it have an impact?

The Disadvantages of Labeling in the Classroom

Influence on self-esteem

“Children develop and define their sense of self by processing what others tell them about who they are, what they are good at, how they behave. The present research confirms that sometimes adolescents are facing the same problems and feel doubtful, they are always conscious about their physique, their body weight, especially girls.” (Kaniz, Haider, Syeda, & Asher, 2016)

With that said, there is no way to deny the consequences labelling has on the self-esteem of a person. A study of Bernberg, Krohn, and Rivera (2006) claim that the labels someone is given can cause that their original personality and character trades will be suppressed. This connects to the earlier mentioned research as it all explains how a “new social persona takes over” (Boyle, 2014)


“According to a study done by Bernber, Krohn, and Rivera (2006) being labelled as a ‘delinquent’ earlier in one’s life meant that there was more chance that subsequently they would behave to the label and the more they did this then the more they came to believe that this was an acceptable and valid persona.” (Boyle, 2014)

Why do you think this is the case?


One of the most important disadvantages that come with labelling is stigma. However, within an International School, this makes labelling even more complicated as people come from different cultural backgrounds.

Apart from the fact that people have individual opinions, they often also share a general idea about ‘disabilities’ based on the cultural environment they grew up in. According to Rao (2001), the role of local language plays a big part in the acceptance of disabilities and normalising it. Therefore, together with the knowledge that not all cultures accept and support inclusion, we can conclude that cultural stigmas also, significantly, play a big role in international education.

The social stigma of being labelled as having below-average intelligence, for example, seems to be a valid concern for many students and subsequently adults in society. We, as special education, general education, psychology etc. professionals have to be aware of how far labels travel and how damaging they become as a person goes through life.” (Boyle, 2014)

 According to Kalkhoff, Albaskovka and Burke (2005), labelling creates a permanent undesirable identity which causes the person to undergo the consequences of not being able to ‘fit the standards’. (Kaniz, Haider, Syeda, & Asher, 2016)

 “Bengali mothers of children with disabilities in Calcutta, India use the colloquial term ‘inconvenience’ to talk about their child’s disabilities. Data were collected through extensive interviews and participant observations. Findings indicate that the mothers’ use of the colloquial term ‘inconvenience’ forms a significant aspect of their efforts to educate their community and create inclusion for their children.” (Rao, 2001)

An example of this is that in the UK a 13-year-old student was denied at a mainstream school placement at first because of labels she received over 6 years ago. The mum fought against the ‘dyslexic-type difficulties’ and ‘below average intelligence’ labels with the result that these were incorrect. This caused that the student, all of the sudden, got accepted at the mainstream school. (Morris, 2011)

“Highlighting this case is not so much about whether the psychologist originally erred or not but that so much emphasis was placed on a six-year-old assessment coupled with the label of ‘below average intelligence’ and that this was going to be the supporting evidence for placing a student outwith a mainstream school. The potentially negative social ramifications for these students are quite often given less credence than they warrant when considering labels in special education and this is specifically discussed in the next section. “(Morris, 2011)

Restrictions within the educational system

Apart from labels influencing a persons’ personal life, it can also impact their professional development. As contradictory as it sounds, having a label can cause limitations within your school career. Research shows that it can provoke access to all educational systems as schools will sometimes find reasons to deny certain people, according to their label.

However, the bias thing that is happening around the world at the moment is that often, labels are required within the educational system to get funding for the right support. (Blum & Bakken, 2010; Boyle, 2014).   “No label equals no money, therefore, no support.” (Boyle, 2014)


When students are identified with a label, it is very likely that they will experience social stigmatization and might be treated equally. However, not wanting to be labelled might retain you from being granted access to the right resources.

How would you react if you would be in a situation like this?


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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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