Behavior Labeling: Is Your Child Seen as “The Bad Kid”?

Posted August 7, 2012 by

One of the secrets about children with special needs is that they are often held to a different standard of behavior. It seems that once they get a label — AD/HD, OCD, Autism or ED (Emotional Disability) that they cease being a child and become the label. School staff often has much less tolerance for typical child behaviors from the kids with labels and give them less wiggle room instead of more.

It’s a strange paradox that the thing that should bring more understanding — a diagnosis that something is going on that is beyond a child’s control or will — instead brings more judgment. It’s a dangerous mindset, and we are all guilty of doing this at one time or another.

When my son who has a diagnosis of AD/HD was in kindergarten, he needed to be moving in order to pay attention. During circle time, he was often pacing in the back or wandering around the room. The teacher made it clear to the whole classroom that his ‘decision’ to not sit meant that he was not a good student. Not once did she ask him if he heard what she said. If she had, she would have learned that he heard everything she said and all the side comments from the other students. She thought she was teaching the days of the week, but the lesson the kids got was that students who don’t look or act like they are supposed too, are not welcome. They learned that some kids are not as important or good or valued as others.

“Your son is bright,” the kindergarten teacher told us, “but he won’t stay in his seat or do the worksheets like the other children. I think he may need to be evaluated.”

When an adult acts differently, we might call them unique or brilliant or independent. When a child does, we think there is something wrong with them.

The other kindergartners also learned that they could treat my son differently. The teacher did, which gave them permission to do so. He got labeled the ‘bad kid.’

This did two very alarming, very damaging things. First, my son lost respect for teachers and all those in authority. He knew he was being treated differently and judged as ‘less than.’ He started to hate school, and that has never changed — even as he enters his senior year of high school.

The other troubling assumption came from those around him — his community then and now. His labeling made him an ‘other.’ He was tolerated, but was not seen as a full member of the community. When we think that way, it is much easier to deny the person’s rights and to treat them as sub-human. This is seriously treacherous thinking, though it explains why people with disabilities are only a step above prisoners in their rights, access and freedoms.

When a child with a disability label is held to a different standard of behavior than his or her peers, it is a set-up for failure. I think one way to handle this is to start reframing our language to begin to change our thoughts. Start with listing a few ‘negative’ qualities others have said about you. Then spin those into a positive.

Are you stubborn — or do you persevere?

Are you distractible — or are you flexible?

Are you rigid — or do you have great organization skills?

Now apply that to your own children and their friends.

Could the girl that comes over and starts asking about what is in your cupboards be nosy or curious?

Is the boy on the t-ball team hyper or energetic?

Labeling behaviors in children is a tricky endeavor. It can have long-lasting damage for our kids and for our society. Take this reminder to watch or words and our actions and the beliefs behind them. Changing our words can change our minds. And that can make all the difference.


Anna Stewart is a family advocate, writer, speaker, facilitator and single mother of 3 unique kids. She is passionate about helping families learn to advocate WITH their children and teens and supporting those with AD/HD. Anna is the author of School Support for Students with AD/HD.

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  1. Angela (Edit) Report

    Anna I loved what you had to say about the comparing of adults and children with their eccentricities and acting differently. I feel like my son was definitely in this category. He was acting up and we couldn’t keep up with him so we sent him to a wilderness therapy program. It came to the surface that he was a teenager that needed help. They taught him about respect and responsibility. He came back not changed, but more focussed. He’s still himself with his quirks, but he’s mature with how he acts and more disciplined. I do believe children that are excited and active all the time do need to learn how to channel that energy. Great and insightful article.

  2. johnny (Edit) Report

    Hey – I again agree with you. My son had so much trouble with what we always considered a socially diagnosed label/problem. Fortunately we have managed to support only the positive label while acknowledging the other side of things…. the same way, the exact same way, a parent or friend would point out the “other”side of leadership tendencies in one… might be labeled “bossy” by another…. great article, great perspective.

  3. cookies6 (Edit) Report

    I have four kids under 12.One is ED one autistic and one MMR. My school experincewas so bad I took matters into my own hands, took some teaching classes and became a homeschooling family. They have learned a whole lot more without the labeling.

  4. Cyndi (Edit) Report

    Hi Anna;

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us all. Your words speak volumes for all of us who interact with children – and I am very grateful to have found your article

  5. McGillicuddy (Edit) Report

    Two comments about social perceptions about a child’s “deficits” and labeling.

    1.) We need to build our perception of children’s gifts, especially labeled children. By reflecting together (in community), parents can name this “deficit labeling” problem so dominant in our culture and better discern childrens’ gifts. See “The Careless Society” (book) by John McKnight at:

    2.) This labeling can happen in the the family system as well as classroom, etc. Parents need authentic community support to oppose the dominant culture and its “over-professionalization” in their family, which also weakens the needed communities (see McKnight book).

  6. jojo (Edit) Report

    Anna – Nice to see you back! I find it so refreshing to find these comparisons… good or bad…. “nosy or curious”. I appreciate your forward thinking that this shift in labeling… shifts the future thinkers, artists and creators in our society. Your voice is spot on. Kudos!

  7. Kenny (Edit) Report

    Thanks Anna; I can tell you know how to treat children with disabilities. I agree with you that people put labels on us, and that label sticks as a true first impression. Keep posting so I can enjoy reading from you again.

  8. Beki An Sciacca (Edit) Report

    Anna, thanks for another insightful, sensitive article. I can get really sad when I think about how the lives of our little ones are so deeply altered by the remarks (based on beliefs) of those to whom we entrust their care. And, these people really are trying to help! Keep sharing your experience and wisdom with all of us, it makes a difference.

  9. Suze (Edit) Report

    Thank you Ms Stewart. I totally agree with you ,my son is in 1st grade and he has already been labeled a bad kid. He is starting to disrespect his teachers and other school staff.



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