The expectation of labels

 

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In some circles labels can be used as an attempt to define who you are, either to yourself or to others; for example the car you drive, the clothes you wear, the foods you eat, the technology you use, even the books you read. The use of labels can lead to stereotyping and expectations based upon particular characteristics while other, and equally salient, qualities specific to the individual are ignored.

Applying labels to children can serve similar purposes: to define and explain particular behaviours or characteristics. Labels can range from an informal “naughty” through to medical diagnoses such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder).

Whether the result of an informal observation or a professional assessment, labels can have a profound effect upon a child and family members. The label sets up expectations that may limit the way the child is viewed; so that only those characteristics specific to the label are noticed and responded to. The child is viewed as being “the label” rather than an individual who displays those particular behaviours or characteristics, at this moment.

People tend to see what they want to see and ignore evidence that doesn’t support their thinking. So if a child is labelled disruptive, it is the disruptive behaviour which is noticed and acted upon. Similar behaviour in a child not bearing the label may be overlooked or excused. While the focus is on one, usually negative or limiting, behaviour other positive characteristics and strengths may be ignored.

pygmalion effect

Unfortunately, once a label is applied it is often difficult to remove and it may be used as an excuse for a child’s failure to learn or progress; after all the “fault” is considered to be with the child, not with any methods used or not used. Sadly too, labels can be misapplied or not fully understood. This may accentuate differences that are non-existent or less serious than the label implies.

However not all effects are negative. There are many positive effects of labelling a child’s condition or behaviour; including:

  • increased opportunities for the child, family and teachers to receive support through funding of programs, assistance of trained personnel and professional development
  • enhanced understanding through discussions using a common language with specific meanings and applications
  • increased awareness in the community with further opportunities for advocacy as well as greater acceptance and tolerance
  • the development of programs aimed specifically to support individuals with the condition.

But are all labels negative? What about giftedness?

Previously on this blog there has been some discussion about praise and the effects of different types of praise. The discussions were initiated in response to The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz and can be found here and here. Grosz suggested that praising a child could cause a loss of competence. Why would you continue to try if you were already “the best”?

Claudia M. Mueller and Carol S. Dweck support the notion that Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance. They suggest that labels such as “smart”, “clever” and “intelligent” can be just as damaging as those with deficit connotations.

Dweck explains her ideas more fully in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, my current audiobook “read”. I have previously mentioned Dweck’s theory of ‘yethere and here.

In the book Dweck talks about how praise creates mindset. If one is praised for being smart or clever, then one develops a fixed mindset: “I am smart. I can achieve because I am smart.” If effort is required then one is not smart. Those with a fixed mindset avoid challenges that might jeopardise the view of themselves as smart.

On the other hand, praise for effort encourages a ‘yet’ or growth mindset: if I try it again, try harder, try it a different way, then I will do better. “I can learn”. There is no risk of becoming ‘not clever’. A growth mindset recognises the importance of effort, persistence and motivation.

fixed - growth mindset

Dweck says “don’t praise the genius – praise the process”.

Giftedness” is a label that was once applied after achieving a high result on an intelligence test, and was just as sticky as any other: there for life.  Giftedness was considered stable and unchangeable. It is obvious that many “gifted” students could fall into the fixed mindset trap. Thanks to Dweck’s work on mindset, attitudes to IQ scores and the concept of “giftedness” are now changing.

Teachers with a growth mindset appreciate the incremental

Students can be encouraged to develop a growth mindset by learning about how the brain works. When they understand that labels aren’t fixed and that learning can be improved, they will become more confident and may find more enjoyment in some of the challenges that school offers. Encouraging students to recognise how they view themselves as learners and to substitute “growth” for “fixed” thinking will have a remarkable effect upon their confidence and success.

Encouraging this growth mindset may be one way we can look out for each other, one way of “getting your back”.

To write a story (in 99 words, no more no less) about a character who is called to have the back of another was the challenge set by Charli Mills at the Carrot Ranch this week. In her post Charli is talking about labels of another kind, labels that can be just as damaging or just as useful. She talks about having another’s back, being there to offer support when needed.  A parent, a teacher, a friend can be there at any time to offer support for a learner on their path to discovery. My response captures one such moment.

Growth: a mindset

Marnie propped her head on one hand while the pencil in the other faintly scratched the paper. She hoped it wasn’t too obvious that she didn’t get it. But she didn’t get it. She didn’t get last year, or the year before. Why should she get it now? What was the point? Her brain just didn’t work that way. She was dumb. They had always said she was dumb. No point in trying.

Then the teacher was there, encouraging, supporting, accepting. “Let me help you,” she said. “You can do this. Let’s break it down into steps. First …”

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.

53 thoughts on “The expectation of labels

  1. Ellen Hawley

    I have a vague memory of a study in which some students were (randomly) labeled as gifted and–lo and behold–they did better in class after that. I don’t think the students were aware of the labels, only the teacher was. Unfortunately, I can’t come even close to giving you a reference for that.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks so much for your comment, Ellen. Don’t worry about a reference. I have read similar studies too. It is interesting, isn’t it, the way expectations influence results. The teacher thought the students were bright and taught them as if they were with high expectations and the children met them. I do battle with the concept of high expectations though as it often seems to imply increased didactic formal and structured work rather than problem-solving and learner directed projects.

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      1. Ellen Hawley

        I think I know what you’re saying there. I’m not a teacher and the implications of the two roads are something I can only guess at. I have immense respect for what you do and don’t think I could do it.

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  2. Pingback: Phrasing praise | Norah Colvin

  3. Sacha Black

    Lovely post and lovely flash Norah.

    It’s an interesting concept this. Personally I don’t feel that there are any negative consequences to praise. BUT I do agree (I think) in taking time to consider how you praise. I don’t buy that telling a child they are clever leads to laziness – I was told I was clever as a child and that only spurred me on to do better…

    So I agree it is something to do with mindset and I would hope that the responsible adult helps to keep them on track and see that even if they are the cleverest in the class they can still beat themselves next time…

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Sacha. I agree with you. I’m going to delve into this praise issue in another post. I think there’s still more to nut out. I’m sure you’ll have more to say to that too.
      I love your final statement about “beating themselves next time”. As long as they don’t beat themselves up, eh?

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    2. Sarah Brentyn

      I agree with Sacha. In fact, I have seen more kids go the way of “beating themselves up” — being really hard on themselves, becoming perfectionists, etc. than becoming lazy. (Which is not a good thing, mind you, I’m just sharing what I’ve witnessed with my own son and quite a few students.)

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  4. katespencer17

    Norah, I “liked” your post yesterday and marked it as one I had to return to comment on. I like how you talk about both the down and up side of ‘labelling’. One cannot ever understate the importance of getting the right help for anyone – a child or adult. And even gifted children need special programs – who say they don’t have learning disabilities that they need to overcome before their gifts can shine. What I find disturbing is how often the child or adult becomes their label. They wear them like badges of honor and many I’ve met feel they deserve special treatment and understanding from everyone because of it. Actress Jane Fonda recently made headlines and I looked up a quote I remember hearing in one of her interviews. She suffers from genetic osteoarthritis and her comment went something like this: “I have a fake knee. I have a fake hip. I’ve got a lot of metal in by back – it’s a field day at the airport. My body hurts almost all the time. But I am not my aches and pains. I feel great and I am positive…” May we all live beyond our labels. Thanks Norah for your thoughtful post on the subject.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for your like and your comment Kate. You have added richness to the conversation with your thoughts.
      I agree that getting the appropriate support is important, and that being judged by the label alone is not a good thing.
      Thanks for sharing that story about Jane Fonda. We are all more than any one of our parts, and probably even more than the sum of them too.We each have an essence that goes beyond that. Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂

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    2. Sarah Brentyn

      Kate. You made me cry. Thank you for this: “even gifted children need special programs – who say they don’t have learning disabilities that they need to overcome before their gifts can shine.” So much. ❤

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  5. macjam47

    This is an interesting post. Labels have existed forever, and more often than not, they are destructive. When adults attach a label to a child, even if they don’t verbalize it in the classroom, the other children will pick it up in the teachers actions. I remember when the school district my children were in, the superintendent and board of education decided there would be no more tracking of students’ abilities and deficiencies. They thought it would be equalizing, but what they didn’t take into consideration is that every student knew exactly where each one in the class stood. More time was spent trying to make the differences between students invisible, when they could have been working with the students to help them move forward, as in the example with Marnie.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Interesting point Michelle. And you are so right. It doesn’t matter how much teachers try to disguise their ability groupings, children are pretty perceptive about who can and who can’t. Funny thing is though the children don’t seem to mind the differences, accepting that the abilities of each is different. It is only when they are portrayed as having a difficulty or a problem that it becomes one. If each child was supported to progress in their own time and way there would be little issue.

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  6. Sherri

    Norah, this is an excellent article and I amazed at how much you and I are on the wavelength this week for Charli’s flash prompt, since I have written about the stigma of labelling and Asperger’s Syndrome. I wrote about the other side of labelling in that my daughter needed to receive her diagnosis so that she could have access to the financial and practical support available to her. But my point is that why does having a diagnosis with a mental health condition have to mean labelling and stigmatisation? Also this prevalance over in the UK with the thinking that ‘most’ people on benefits are lazy, work shy and welfare scroungers. There is still a great deal of stigma about. But of course you write a different kind of labelling and present both sides so clearly and intelligently. I totally agree (and we have recently had a little discussion about fixed mindset versus growth mindset!) that even when labelled with what is perceived as something good…being smart, intelligent, clever etc…can be detrimental to a child. The comments here are so interesting too, showing both sides. I never wanted my daughter to have any kind of labelling, and indeed she was told that to have a diagnosis of any kind would stigmatise her. This was not helpful for her, as you will read. In this case, her ‘label’ would have helped her so much throughout her school years so very much. Your excellent flash demonstrates just how vital it is for a teacher to help break that cycle of detrimental labelling for a child, and how, with the right support and mindset, a child (Marnie) can thrive and move past the negativity. And now I’m off to watch Lucy 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences here Sherri. I look forward to reading your post and flash and learning even more.
      The comments have been very interesting and I am grateful for so many to have shared their personal experiences.
      The conundrum of your daughter’s situation must be/have been so frustrating. She’s told a diagnosis will lead to a stigma (sets up the expectation and fear) but the diagnosis would have gained support, which she badly needed. It’s like a catch 22. Why does anyone else, other than those for whom the information is particularly pertinent (child, parents,teachers), need to know? I’m sure you will have some interesting insights in your post. See you soon! 🙂

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  7. TanGental

    Fascinating post and comments. I’ve never been labelled and neither have my family until dyslexia raised its head for my son when aged 19. By then he’d learnt to cope but understanding some of its impacts has changed a few behaviours. He hates it, mind you and refuses to mention it; he’s now working at a commercial law firm and see no reason to bring it up. I tin it’s the point Anne makes that is where I resist: the use of a term that is then all encompassing; most if not all are spectra of issues – I learnt a bit about that from Elizabeth at Autism Mom and it is so important to keep tat in mind even if we have the general guidance within which to work.

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    1. Norah Post author

      I think that is very sensible advice, Geoff. Learn what you can from the label, but learn more about the individual. I know you have mentioned your son’s difficulty with reading previously, and his dyslexia. I wonder how differently he may have been treated at school had it been “diagnosed” earlier: would he have received more support or would it just have explained his difficulty, nothing more to be done?
      I have never had a formal label, but certainly bestowed quite a few labels on myself. One of those was to do with difficulty with maths in my senior secondary years. It was more a result of poor teaching than lack of ability, but nonetheless … I find it disheartening when parents explain their children’s difficulty with maths or spelling, say, by saying, “I always had trouble with maths” or “spelling” in front of the children. It tends to set up the expectation for the children – if Mum or Dad couldn’t do it, I won’t be able to do it either. It seems innocent enough, but the repercussions can be long lasting.Maybe I do need to work on that phrasebook as Bec suggested!

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  8. Annecdotist

    An interesting post and subsequent discussion on the pros and cons of labelling. Just wanted to chip in and say Oppositional Defiant Disorder is a fabulous label, and a new one on me. I was suppose I ought to check it out before commenting but the prospect is too depressing. How psychiatry dreams up these titles is worthy of an advertising executive’s PhD. There might be some logic in trying to understand what’s going on for a child who is always saying no (instead of usually saying no) but there’s likely to be little to be gained without looking into the relational aspects with parents and perhaps teachers. I imagine it’s replacing what we used to call Conduct Disorder which, like all labels, has a grain of truth/usefulness that then gets treated as if it’s the whole harvest.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Great comment. Thanks Anne. I wondered what perspectives you may have to add. Your comments about ODD are interesting. I wonder how much influence the expectations have upon the behaviour as well. I love your “grain of truth treated as the whole harvest”. It’s a great analogy!

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  9. Pingback: Got Your Back « Carrot Ranch Communications

  10. Charli Mills

    I like the results when you take on a challenge that seems “too hard.” Such thoughtful discussion about labels and the growth mindset. The more I read of Dwek, the more I want to get her book. It’s on my wishlist! As to Marnie, she shows the inner turmoil those societal and self-labels create and how the mind freezes and grows fixed. What an encouraging teacher to come along and break her “fixation.” I like Bec’s idea of creating supporting materials for the growth-minded classroom!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Charli. It has been great to read the comments and how the imposition of labels has applied to different people, either themselves or their children. I’m pleased to hear that the effects have been mainly positive. I wonder if this is a change that has happened over recent years. “Back in my day” (that is, when I was at school and even early teaching days) anyone who was considered to have a learning difference would be sent away to a “special” or “opportunity” school. Nice words, but everyone knew they were the “dummies”. I remember back in the 80s I was teaching a boy who got a low result on an intelligence test and was recommended for “special” school. I fought against it and wanted to give him more time to learn (I was taking my year ones up to year two so it would have been quite feasible to keep him with me and his friends) but I lost the battle. Partly because the guidance officer felt that, although he was making good progress with me, he would fall further behind as he moved through the school (there’s a prediction!) and partly because his parents had both attended “opportunity” school (same thing just a change of name over the years) and were happy for him to go there where he would be top of the class rather than struggle at the bottom in mainstream class. I wonder what became of him. I wasn’t happy for I knew once one attended one of those schools there was no coming back. I guess it wasn’t long after that those schools closed and children were mainstreamed anyway.
      Dweck’s book is interesting. I’m listening to a section on relationships at the moment, and have listened to one on business. Mindset applies to every situation!
      Thanks for adding your encouragement to Bec’s idea. I’ve added it to the list! 🙂

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  11. Sarah Brentyn

    You have cut me to the quick with this one.
    I read it through twice and need to come back to comment. I agree with some of what you say but my life, honestly, revolves around the two types of labels you’ve mentioned here — one for each of my children. I just don’t define myself (or my kids) by the labels. I don’t shy away from the labels, I just don’t mention them unless it’s in context.
    I’ve got to get my thoughts together. Be back. 😉

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    1. Sarah Brentyn

      The thought that giftedness is a positive diagnosis is wrong. Pure and simple. In some ways, of course, there are benefits. But my other son also has certain benefits having Asperger’s. Giftedness is not a gift. It very often comes with a great deal of issues (sometimes labels) that make living life on a daily basis extremely difficult. (And, socially… Let’s not even go there with the negativity regarding giftedness.) My gifted son struggles much more than my Asperger’s son. (I don’t refer to them this way normally but for the purpose of this post, I am.)

      I don’t define myself by my children’s labels and I don’t define them by their labels. But we have always been open about the diagnosis each of my children have. I don’t want them to feel it’s something to be ashamed of so we talk about it. And I was thrilled to have both of them labeled because I finally knew what the heck was going on with them.

      It was hell before we knew what was happening. As a matter of fact, we took my gifted son to be tested, sure that he had Asperger’s (like his brother) or was on the spectrum somewhere and that is how we found out he was gifted. And all that went along with that. Every child (Asperger’s, gifted, ADD, ADHD…) is different but, of course, they have many issues in common. Hence, the diagnosis. Or label, if you prefer.

      I like your section on the positive effects of labeling. We have been able to get help for both of my boys only because we have those labels. Also, we better understand some behaviors at home and THEY better understand some of their behaviors and know that there’s nothing wrong with them and there are others out there with the same label who deal with the same issues.

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      1. Norah Post author

        Thanks for your comment, Sarah. You are obviously more qualified to speak about these issues from your own experiences with your children.
        I like that you discuss the labels with your children and show them that there is nothing to be ashamed of, just understanding to be had. I get that finding out what was going on with both your sons would have enabled you to seek support for and treat them in ways they needed. I like that you say that each child is an individual; and each needs to be treated as such. But the fact that many have traits, and issues, in comment enables greater understanding and support in some of those areas. As long as they are not regarded as “all x children . . .” but are accepted for their own individual foibles, then that is a good thing. How wonderful for you all to feel that you are not alone.
        Thank you for the additional insights you have provided by sharing your personal experiences. I very much appreciate your openness and honesty. 🙂

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        1. Sarah Brentyn

          Certainly not more qualified. More…long-winded? 😉 It’s a bee in my bonnet, this is. That’s all. But, yes, the labeling to get help and to help my children feel less alone was a blessing.

          (Agreed. I detest the “all x children…” statement. It’s ridiculous.)

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          1. Norah Post author

            It’s good to have a bee in your bonnet. If nobody ever had a bee in their bonnet for something they feel strongly about, something they feel needs to change, nothing would ever change, we would never progress. Please keep on having bees in your bonnets – just don’t let them sting!

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  12. Autism Mom

    Excellent article! I can give a flip side to the gifted label – because of my son’s struggles in a classroom setting due to his Autism, he thought he was stupid. He self-labeled based on his inability to figure out the social rules on his own and there was no talking him out of it, especially when he was faced with challenging material.

    When he was placed in the gifted program, he was pleasantly forced to recognize and acknowledge that he was not stupid. It gave us a strong platform from which to start the “growth mindset” training without his spiraling into a depressive fugue where he would fail to hear the “yet” because he was convinced of his own labeling. I agree that the label needs to be handled with care, and for us the label was a blessing.

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      1. Charli Mills

        The labels can be a blessing when they foster understanding and can be used as a platform to build that growth mindset. Autism Mom brings up a good point about self-labeling, which can be harsh. Norah also points out the benefits of labels and again, this is the result of it leading to something improved or healing or working. I’m often reluctant to share my label (I want to rip it off like the one on pillows), yet it was a blessing to finally understand and grow from that point of understanding. A blessing, indeed, if one can avoid the fixed mindsets of others!

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        1. Norah Post author

          I think it is the freedom that comes with knowing and then understanding that is the biggest benefit. I like the thought of you ripping the label off like the one on a pillow – better that one – it may have little resistance; unlike a plaster on the body that not only rips the skin off, but leaves a nasty residue as well. I think avoiding the fixed mindsets of others comes in part by having a strong sense of self and knowing that the opinions of others do not define you. Great point to make! (Easier said than done.)

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      2. Norah Post author

        I’m really to pleased to hear of the positive effects of labels. I know that a diagnosis can provide parents with a sense of relief. The understanding that follows recognition can enable support to be given. For it to be recognised, discussed and acted upon in a way that benefits the individual as opposed to just saying, “that explains everything” is the real purpose of the label. Nice that you can support each other here. 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      Fabulous! I can hear the joy in your words. How wonderful that the gifted program gave your son the opportunity to see himself as a learner. I guess it shows that meeting the needs of an individual must be priority – regardless of any label that may or may not be applied. Thank you for sharing your experience. 🙂

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      1. Autism Mom

        Oh, you made me cry. 🙂 Until you wrote that, I had not realized that I experienced joy at his recognizing his own strengths, and you’re right, I do.

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        1. Norah Post author

          I hope those tears were also with joy! Sometimes we don’t take the time to reflect on our feelings and it takes another to see. I’m pleased I helped you recognise what you were feeling by reflecting back what I saw. 🙂

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  13. Colline

    An interesting read.
    When children come into my classroom, I try my best not to listen to the labels that have been given to them for the reasons you state. Instead I try to see that all children have their strengths and that they can contribute in some way to the learning experience in the classroom.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Wonderful! Colline, I applaud your approach. I was always reluctant to put too much stead into what others said, preferring to find out for myself. This applies in my personal as well as professional life. I like to take people as I find them. Obviously if a child had special needs (and I’m not referring to a label as such) I would take that into consideration. I wouldn’t be blind to what had gone before, but I would be willing to take a different perspective.
      What level of schooling do you work in?

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      1. Colline

        This year I will be working in a combined grade 1/2 class in French Immersion. I have taught children in kindergarten as well as high school in my teaching career. I have also worked with adults.

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        1. Norah Post author

          That sounds exciting! Is French your first or other language? Are the children from French speaking homes? I’d love to know more about it. Sounds like you have had a very diverse career.

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          1. Colline

            French is my ythird language but I have trained to teach it as a second language. I work in a French Immersion school where children attend classes from Senior Kindergarten with no knowledge of French. The teachers speak to them in French – and the children learn that way. It can be challenging but what a pleasure when they begin to understand and then speak in French!

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            1. Norah Post author

              Wow, Colline. I’m impressed: three languages! I learned French at school and remember only a few words and phrases. I have an Accelerated Learning course in French which I have tried a few times. It is excellent, but without the practice, the ability fades.
              I’m fascinated by the term ‘Senior Kindergarten’ and wonder what that is. I’m assuming these children speak English, or another language, at home and are immersed in French for all their learning at school? Is that correct? It is an interesting concept.

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  14. Bec

    What a great post and a lovely (but as so often with Marnie – a bit heartbreaking) FF. There are so many thoughts which came to mind! The overarching theme you’ve discussed here is so closely related to my PhD research – the impact of labels via social identity. The pygmalion effect you mention is something I have tried to write about in terms of environmental conflict – how when we create these behavioural and attitudinal templates for how people engage with environmental disputes, these templates become reinforcing through the psych processes we see through social identity.

    Then the concept of the potential consequences of the ‘gifted’ label, too – I was reminded of a radio show I heard a week or so ago about a parent who frantically embraced hearing his child was ‘gifted’ in art at school, so decided to enroll the child in art tuition, only to be told by the child “I don’t want a tutor, I just want to draw. Why do grown ups always have to take over everything?”. This then lead to an epiphany for the parent who decided to lower the pace of the life he was orchestrating for his child! The radio show is here: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/frantic-family-rescue/6684172 the discussion on “gifted” is from 5:00 – 6:40 approximately.

    Following on from your growth mindset, too, I wonder if something that you might consider is creating resources for teachers to help them with embracing this growth mindset? What terms could they train themselves into using to encourage students to share in the growth mindset? Perhaps you could create a phrasebook for use in the growth-minded classroom!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Bec,
      Thanks for your lovely comment with lots of insights. It’s interesting to see the connection you make with your PhD work. The Pygmalion effect definitely has long claws. The radio show was interesting. I am always amazed at the breadth of your reading and listening. I couldn’t seem to find any time indicator on the playback timeline, but got to hear other good “stuff” as well. 🙂
      Thanks for you suggestions about a mindset phrasebook. I could probably use one myself! I’ve added it to the list! 🙂

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