The Trouble With Labels

By Zach Mural

We live in a time when the terms “normal” and “abnormal” are used far too often to describe the news, politics, and, unfortunately, even our young people. While the idea that some terms fit a definition of “normalcy” is fairly commonplace, what is considered typical or “normal” varies tremendously depending on a number of factors. As a result, when we think of—or actually refer to youth as—either “normal,” “typical,” “differently abled,” “special needs,” or any other term that may describe a particular characteristic (including race, gender, etc.), attribute, or challenge, we run a real risk of limiting how they are viewed, approached, challenged, and at times even granted access to certain programs or resources.

Before elaborating on the problems and limited benefits of assigning labels to individuals, there’s one important—and even obligatory—caveat. Of course, some labels are absolutely necessary and help to identify and prepare for specific needs, challenges, and supports. I am NOT advocating that we do not have or appropriately use labels in the course of our work with youth! What I do believe and have witnessed on numerous occasions is that far too often (and generally with the best of intentions), adults who are tasked with working with and serving youth become far too concerned with a particular label or group to which a child may or may not belong, and as a result they end up missing or ignoring what would otherwise be easy opportunities to promote positive development for that young person.

Another overarching point is why—as a general rule—we humans like labels. For fear of putting too fine a point on it, we have evolved to rely on group membership for safety and social status; our membership in various groups is one of the main ways that we define ourselves. Do you like a certain sports team? If so, you probably display its name/logo, and as a result you are more likely to find other individuals who also root for that team. Even our clothes can and do signal what groups we are affiliated with (think “white collar,” “blue collar,” “prep,” “punk,” etc.). The problem that arises for those of us who work with youth is that kids are not clothes, and frequently young people have less choice than adults in determining their own group membership (not that adults have absolute or anything close to total control). As a result, when we think about a young person as primarily defined by a group to which he or she does not belong, we do that person a disservice and run the very real risk of treating that person as an “other.” It is critical to remember that regardless of membership in any particular group, everyone has challenges, fears, strengths, and passions, and as youth development professionals, it is up to us to help young people find and develop their full potential.

The Upside Of A Label
While there are other issues with labels and the tendency to compare ourselves and others to some mystical “normalcy” that I will address soon, having a label and knowledge of an individual’s group membership is not without some value. For example, understanding how individuals with differing abilities are likely to react to certain environmental or program-specific circumstances is helpful. The best programs and staff members ensure that resources and appropriate supports are available and in place before and during a program to meet the individual needs of each participant. Additionally, by being aware of the status of individual participants ahead of time, we can dramatically lower the likelihood that young people will fail or become frustrated in our programs. And, finally, at times it may be appropriate to offer programs that target certain segments of the population to engender a sense of community, belonging, and to maximize the impact of various supports and tailored programming.

More Troubles
Despite the potential value of knowing about individuals with differing abilities and their group membership before and during program planning, there are more potential pitfalls that should be considered. The first is a tendency for staff members to assume that, if participants come to a program without having been identified as part of a particular group, everyone is more alike than they actually are. Regardless of whether or not participants have been identified as having differing abilities or been labeled as being part of a specific group, every individual comes with certain skills, talents, fears, and perspectives. As a result, it is critical that as park and rec youth-development providers, we recognize and seek to understand and respond to the differences that each participant brings to the program (both strengths and opportunities for growth and development) in a proactive and timely manner. 

Another issue that arises when we craft programs based on the identified differences of individuals is that these can lead to the creation (or perception) of artificially homogeneous groups. The reality is that homogeneous groups are not generally a good thing. Calling attention to diversity—and highlighting what makes each child unique and special—is a great way to celebrate individual differences, and when we create or consider groups to be overly similar, that opportunity is lost.

A final concern with becoming overly reliant on pre-identified differences is that it can lead to unnecessarily varied expectations. Certainly, while individuals with differing abilities may develop and progress through program materials at a range of paces, that does not mean they are unable to succeed at a similar level as their peers without any identified group membership. As program providers, it is important that we are careful to guard against times when youth use their membership in a certain group as a license to underachieve (a situation called “learned helplessness”).

So What
As youth program providers, we must make it a priority to educate staff members about the children we serve. Of course we need to consider any and all identified differences that the children in our programs have, but we also need to guard against assuming that lack of labels mean that everyone is the same (or even similar). Along with understanding the identified differences that individual participants have, we should understand the source of labels. Many parents and adults are quick to take on the role of doctor, and just because someone tells you something about a child (particularly assigning a label or diagnosis), it does not make it the truth. Consider the source and act accordingly.

Finally, regardless of the labels that participants come to us with, children all want to belong and have the opportunity to succeed. As providers of youth programs, by being aware of and responsive to the individual differences that children have, we can ensure that each and every participant has the best chance of succeeding and growing.

Dr. Zachary Mural is an executive-level leader, youth-development professional, and father. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, is the owner of Youth Development Consulting, is VP of Education for The Minnieland Academy Family of Schools in Northern Virginia, and is an ExpertOnlineTraining faculty member. If you have questions or comments, or would like to discuss a possible workshop or training, visit