Labels are very destructive and can last a lifetime

It was difficult to be a teenager in the 90s and not love Nirvana. They were everywhere. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is still a song that can stop you in your tracks. 

Kurt Cobain’s voice and words came to represent the recalcitrant spirit of teenage angst. If Holden Caulfield could sing, I reckon he’d sound like Cobain. His words and voice captured a generation of disaffected youth. So, being in Seattle has been a real treat for me. It’s an incredible city, too. Enveloped by the Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, it’s easy to see why it became a mecca for musicians in the 90s. It’s a vibrant place, Pike Place Market would give the old English Market, in Cork, a good run for its money. 

Between skyscrapers looms the menacing presence of Mount Rainer, a gigantic snow-capped active stratovolcano, listed as one of the most dangerous in the world because of its activity. Just hold tough for another while! The Cascade Mountain range act as a sponge and holds a lot of the rain-laden weather coming in from the east and south, which creates a blanket of wet weather. It reminds me of Cork – minus the active volcano. Although the fountain on Grand Parade has been known to erupt the odd Saturday night.

This week I started my Fulbright research into how we can better promote inclusion in Irish schools. When I think of inclusion I often think about the relationships I witnessed in school as a student and a teacher. It seemed to me that there was an inherent bias of looking away from difficult differences in our educational system. Teachers and students, as I saw it, often entered into an unspoken relationship: you don’t bother me and I won’t bother you. For a student coming from a difficult family, this dynamic only further increases their sense of isolation and loneliness. 

All behaviour is communication and when a teacher views a child’s difficult behaviour as lacking context and is simply within the child, it ensures that child is excluded from the educational system. When a teacher uses a label like ‘lazy’, ‘stupid’, ‘troublemaker’, etc, they are not predicting the future – they are writing it. Labels are destructive things that can last a lifetime. I meet them so often in my clinic. 

It is incredibly rewarding to see a client finally free themselves from a restricting paradigm that was given to them by a teacher or family member. 

I often crack the label by asking, when your teacher called you ‘lazy’ what do you think they meant? The client usually explains that they didn’t try hard enough, found the subject difficult to comprehend or that they lacked concentration. And so I go further and ask, do you think it would be difficult for a teacher to say: ‘I find you challenge my competencies as a teacher, I don’t know how to teach you or motivate you so using a simple label frees me from any responsibility for your learning. Therefore, the label I used is about me more than it is about you.’ I can see the client literally becoming lighter, the weight lifting off their shoulders. Maybe they’re not ‘lazy’, ‘stupid’ or ‘troublemakers’. Maybe the teacher struggled to know how to manage them and that is why they were labelled. So, the label they have been living is not true and no longer fit for purpose. 

I have seen this happen many times in my work as a teacher. The most terrifying experience is when a family and school align to scapegoat a child. The family says we can’t manage our child, and the school agrees and the child is labelled as ‘no good’ or ‘bad’. I have worked in schools for 20 years and I have worked extensively with teenagers as a family psychotherapist and I can honestly say in all of that time and experience I have never met a ‘bad child’. I have met troubled children who come from very troubled backgrounds but I have never met what we might call an ‘evil’ child. In fact, I have found that if you approach a ‘difficult’ teenager from a place of authenticity and understanding you will generally see the façade or the complicated guard they have constructed to protect themselves collapse.

Inclusion starts from within. It starts from understanding we all have prejudices and we all hold ideas that are limiting and restrict others from thriving. My time in Seattle with Antioch University is shaping my research in a very positive way. I am surrounded by people who believe in diversity and creating learning environments that allow all to thrive. I really can’t thank Fulbright Ireland enough for this unique experience.

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