Can labels ever be good for students?

hell-i-amI told my daughter that her name meant “bringer of joy.” She loved this identity and really embraced this persona. It made me realize the power of labels.  

We all know how labels can be harmful.

  • “Boys don’t cry.”
  • “Good girls don’t…”
  • etc..

Sometimes labels can be harmless. For example, familes can instill traits. Whether it’s a personality trait, like,

“You’re a Smith and Smiths don’t quit!”

…or a team affiliation

“No daughter of mine will be a Habs fan!”

My family has tons of these, from our “Ukraniums” (big Ukrainin heads), to our talkative nature. But the one I prefer the most is:

“We’re Gaudun’s. Gauduns are curious by nature!”

So kids grow up with this big accumulation of labels. “I’m a girl. I’m sporty. I’m a Gaudun. etc…”

We know that a child’s concept of who they are affects their ability and motivation to learn. Children don’t often formalize the process of thinking about their identity. Instead, they think in terms of:

  • things I like, and things I don’t like;
  • things I do and things I don’t do;
  • things I have and things I don’t have.
  • things I am, things I’m not.

They rarely think of the why behind those items, mostly because those answers can be complex.  Once a kid puts themself*  in a box, they will often assume they share other traits with those in the same box. Can we use this to our advantage?

To start, try the game, “Crossing the Line”.  Essentially, you ask a question and students will cross the line if it’s true for them.  You start with the obvious, “Cross the line if you’re a girl.” And move to the abstract, “Cross the line if you’re creative.” TIP: get your students to come up with some of the questions.

How can labels help?

For starters, the game above will help students realize they have more in common with classmates that they don’t know so well. It helps break down some of the bigger boxes students have put themselves in. 

And we can use positive labels to get students to do stuff. For example, I always  knew my sister would compliment me before she’d asked me to do something.

“Tam, you’re so fast. Would you run up to my room and grab my backpack?”

I will call my husband Chef Jeff if I want him to make me dinner.

So, what labels should we give to children to improve their self-concept ?


  • Make it true
  • phrase it as a positive personality trait:
    • you’re determined, tenacious, focused, efficient, joyful, thoughtful, honest, brave, curious, creative, logical, loyal, truthful, witty, etc..
  • turn labels into positive statements
    • don’t say, “you’re slow,” say, “I love how you really think about your answers” or “pay close attention to the instructions”.
    • don’t say, “you’re smart” say “curious” or “I like how you seek out answers” –
  • Assign them a job that highlights their strengths, even when it’s not related to the learning
  • repeat throughout the year


I suppose the real point I’m making is that as a teacher, you have the ability to assign a student a positive label – a trait that you reinforce throughout the year that can help the student think of themself a more positive way. Just like how labelling my daughter, “The bringer of joy,” helps her keep a more positive outlook in her life.

“Ms. Gaudun thinks I’m tenacious, so I’m not gonna give up!”

And you take a student out of a big box (big general label) and make them realize that they’re actually make up of a whole bunch of tiny boxes (positive traits).

For example, instead of “I’m bad at math,” which is a big, all-encompassing statement about their math ability, and instead figure out the parts they’re good at. “I’m good at decoding word problems.” “I can skip count well,” and “I know all of the shapes in geometry”.

Good luck!

* I’m using the plural “they” or “themself” as a gender neutral pronoun

By Tammy Gaudun


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s