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


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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