Labels – Love Them or Leave Them?


My mother was a huge fan of labels. A child of the Great Depression, she was a fashionable woman who valued beautiful outfits and understood the care it took to keep them lovely. My sisters and I still smile when we recall the way she would sidle effortlessly behind us and deftly pull the label from a blouse’s neckline to check the fabric’s contents and care instructions.

Labels are important. They inform. They warn. They detail. Without labels, the cans in our pantries would cause daily mealtime preparation to resemble an episode of Chopped and the resultant dishes edgy at best and inedible at worst.

But what of labels as they pertain to our children?

When I graduated with a degree in special education in 1977, recently enacted Public Law 94-142 offered welcome assistance to children with learning disabilities, developmental handicaps, and severe behavior disorders. Those were pretty much the labels of the day for children who fell in the mild to moderate range of special needs. Since then, the number of labels for our special needs children has exploded and with them the acronyms that accompany: SLD, ED, CD, OHI, MH, ADD, ADHD, ODD, PDD, ASD…. The list seems endless, and the statistics detailing levels of occurrence dizzyingly varied and mysteriously ever changing.

Like the labels on our clothing, precise identifiers for children with special needs can do much to inform us as to the characteristics associated with particular conditions. With information comes understanding that enables us to care for and educate these little ones to the best of our ability. Labels can unite parents – offering support and camaraderie that strengthen weary souls on long days. Labels sometimes open doors to tangible assistance such as individualized educational programs or monetary resources for therapies and treatments. Indeed, these are all good things about labels.

Yet, for all the good that can come from properly identifying children with special needs – whether it be necessary medical treatment or helpful educational accommodations – it is my opinion that today’s overzealous desire to label each and every variance in child development and personality can do much to harm the very children we seek to help.

The following questions may help us evaluate the goodness (or not) of the labels we give our children:


  • Do we view our children as children first or as the sum total of their labels/conditions?
  • Do we permit our children’s labels to define or limit them?
  • Are we quick to attribute common childhood behaviors or experiences to their labels?
  • How will having a diagnosis (label) positively change our children’s lives or the way in which we parent them?

Yes, labels serve a purpose, but like scratchy, ill-placed ones in our necklines, some need to be carefully trimmed or even removed in order to give our children freedom to discover the unique ways in which they have been “fearfully and wonderfully made” by their Creator.

Joan Hartley

Joan Hartley is a member of Grace Fellowship, OPC in Huron, Ohio – a wife, former homeschool mom, and “Mimi” to three grandchildren. Degreed and widely experienced in special education, she is the founder of Winsome Arrows Educational Services which offers support to special needs learners and those who teach them. Joan will be speaking on topics related to uniquely challenged and gifted learners at TTD Sandusky in 2015. Visit her at