Table the Labels

Recently I have been reading the book From Striving to Thriving by Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward. One major idea presented in the book is “Table the Labels.” What this means is we need to stop assigning labels to students. In the context of their book, it refers to student’s ability to read. Thus, instead of referring to a student as a “struggling” reader, they use the term “striving” reader. Struggling connotates having difficulty, whereas striving is making effort. Struggling has a negative predisposition and breaks down confidence. On the other hand, striving presents a growth mindset perspective.

It made me think back to the book Choice Words by Peter Johnson. In that book he discussed the impact of adding the adjective “good” to nouns and how it implies a “bad” even though not directly stated. For example, when I was a classroom teacher my students and I would construct a poster at the beginning of the year listing all the traits of a “good” reader. Thus, if a student portrayed these traits they could classify themselves as a “good” reader. Unfortunately, students who did not portray these traits would consider themselves a “bad” reader despite the fact the term was never used. It is the nature of the opposite. Until I read the book, I had not thought about the inadvertent consequences of creating the poster with students.

I still take pause when using good and bad, especially when correcting my own children’s behavior. It takes careful thought and wording to explain to a child the choice he/she made was bad and not the child. A quick talk on a better choice to make in the future when faced with the same situation is a necessary follow-up to ensure the child understands the choice was faulty and learning from our mistakes is how we grow.

Harvey and Ward also share research from Brenda Hicks about impact of labeling beyond instruction. For example, labeling a child as an “athlete” or a “musician.” By doing this we create a limited path for the child to follow, as the “artist” might not try out for the volleyball team because she does not view herself as skilled in that area. Thus, we want to focus on describing children by the positive attributes of their traits.

The impact of our words can either cause a child to flourish or flounder. So, let’s table the labels and always refer to children (well, all people) in light of their positive attributes.

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