From the day he started school, Malik was labelled a problem child.
His elder brother had a reputation at the school for being a bit of a tearaway.
Malik was like his big brother in many ways, but he was no tearaway. In fact, he had been looking forward to starting school.
However, his teachers didn’t know that.
“When we label someone, we create our expectations for them that will guide how we treat them.”
They expected him to be a handful like his brother, when all he wanted to do was go to school and study just enough to be an engineer when he grew up.
He wasn’t a swot or a goody-goody, just a normal boy. But his brother’s reputation preceded him, and his teachers knew how to deal with problem children and proceeded to do so.
Before long, he had become a problem child.
Social psychologist Elaine Fernandez told MalaysiaNow that teachers treat students who arrive with labels differently to other children.
“When we label someone, we create our expectations for them that will guide how we treat them,” she said.
“The label shapes the way teachers interact with a child regardless of the child’s actual behaviour.”
In the case of children labelled problematic, “Teachers may approach these students more cautiously and with less trust, and therefore interpret even ambiguous actions on the student’s part as being hostile, thus reinforcing the ‘problematic’ label,” she said.
This gives those “problematic” children more negative experiences than positive and as they internalise these experiences their character will develop accordingly.
Fernandez asked, “How often do we find ourselves acting based on a label rather than who someone is as an individual?”
In other words, labels often turn out to be self-fulfilling prophecies where mistaken expectations lead to their own confirmation.
In the same way, a child exhibiting stereotypically “nerdish” tendencies such as a liking for science subjects and a lack of interest or ability at sport, may be labelled a “nerd” and, while not liking the label at first and perhaps even bucking against it, may actually turn into one – for life.
“How often do we find ourselves acting based on a label rather than who someone is as an individual?”
Fernandez, who is also a senior lecturer at the Department of Psychology at HELP University, said, “By labelling children, we may be arbitrarily directing them along very different life-paths to their true nature, because we deal with them based on our understanding of the label and the stereotypes attached, and not with the children as individuals with their own unique sets of strengths, interests, and areas of potential development.”
She described how labels act as limiting factors, preventing children from fulfilling their potential to become successful adults in the future as they are constantly subjected to the judgment of others based on perceived stereotypes.
Although it is possible for some children to have positive outcomes as a result of a label, the possibilities of negative consequences are always there, Fernandez said.
Growing up, children should be allowed to experiment with life without being subjected to judgmental labels as doing so will give them a sense of self-worth and confidence that will make them better adults.
“They will be less likely to fear failure, which means they will be more likely to seize opportunities, even when they don’t neatly fall into a comfortable category,” said Fernandez.
When adults become aware how they may be boxing children into acting a certain way, even without intending to do so, everyone gains.
“Listening to children and being genuinely curious about them as individuals can help to support their growth in specific and relevant ways,” she said.
Her conclusion is that children who are given support are more likely to grow up to be secure, confident adults and have more satisfactory relationships.
And perhaps the world may see more children who grow up to fulfil their ambitions.