Secondary schools are under pressure from Ofsted to let children know what grades or levels they are aiming to achieve at GCSE based on Year 6 SAT results or CAT tests taken in Year 7 or 8. They argue that it helps children understand what progression they can make.



So what is the problem with labelling children?

Psychological research shows that when both children and adults are labelled, it can become part of their self-concept and this in turn affects their performance.


Steele (1997) wanted  to see if  negative stereotypes could affect test performance. In one part of their study they selected women and men who had excellent mathematical abilities to complete a maths tests. Half the participants were told that the maths tests would be better suited to males while the other half were told that the tests would be just as hard for both genders. Unsurprisingly, women performed much worse on the maths tests when they were told it was better suited to males. There was very little difference in performance when they were told that the maths tests would be difficult for both genders. This study shows that negative stereotypes and labels can affect performance. In this study, adult women were affected by the stereotypes but imagine how much more children might be affected by labels telling them they are intelligent or not intelligent.


females-and-maths black-professor








In another part of their study, Steele investigated whether self-labelling the ethnicity of the black students would have an effect on their performance i.e. would reminding someone of their ethnicity (being black) before a test reduce their performance? They found that when people were asked to write down that they were Black African American before the test, this reduced their performance on the test. While White Americans performance increased after writing down their race.

In secondary schools, children are constantly reminded about what grade they are aiming for often with a sticker inside the front cover of their books. Unfortunately, if the grade is low, this could reduce their performance on tests.

So far, we have talked about how labels can affect a child’s own self-concept but labels can also affect how teachers and parents respond to children.


Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) carried out an experiment to investigate whether labels could affect the way teachers responded to children.  As part of the experiment, teachers were told that certain students in their class had high IQs and should show good progress in the year ahead. The children were chosen randomly from the class and they did not have any higher IQs than average. At the end of the year, the children who had been labelled as more intelligent, showed greater increases in their IQ on tests than the children in the class not labelled as having a high IQ. Rosenthal said that this was because teachers had higher expectations for the children labelled as more intelligent and that they created a warmer climate for those children. For example, the teachers may have asked higher level questions of the children they thought were more intelligent.

Unfortunately, teachers are only human and they will be affected by labels given to children. Therefore, if children have high target grades/levels at GCSE, they will expect more of those children than those will lower target grades/levels.

Parents can counter the labels their children are given by explaining to them that IQ is not fixed and can change. Children who believe that the brain can grow are far less likely to be affected by labels and stereotypes.

At the end of the day, research shows that IQ can jump during the teenage years significantly. Ramsden and colleagues (2011) found that IQ can change in the teenage years as much as 20 IQ points. This suggests that the labels children are given based on early tests may not reflect the child’s actual IQ anyway.