Skip main navigation

Labelling children

Communicating effectively with young children helps them learn and develop. Watch James Nottingham talk about the dangers of labelling children.
Child care author Tina Bruce says never call a child ‘naughty’. Well, I’m sure we’ve all caught ourselves out at some point calling a child naughty, or shy, or silly, or even clever, or bright. Is it really such a terrible thing? In this step, we asked James Nottingham to tell us why calling a child naughty, and labelling children in general, can be harmful. Calling a child ‘naughty’ is a label. It is particularly damaging because it’s a negative label. But even a positive label, such as ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’, can actually be problematic because it disempowers the child. So if you were to call me sexist. That’s a negative, of course it’s a negative. And actually my defences might go up.
And I might say “oh no, I’m not sexist. You don’t know me, I’ve never been sexist in my life.” But if you were to say “James that was a sexist thing to say.” Then I’m much more likely to go “OK I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.” And then I can change. And that’s the important thing. That if we call a child ‘naughty’, and they hear it often enough, it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the child starts to believe I’m a naughty person. And then that becomes an excuse for behaviours. So, well I broke that, or I hit that person, or I did that bad thing, because I’m naughty, that’s just what I do.
Whereas if we label the action as ‘naughty’, or incorrect, or conversely, ‘good’ or positive, then that’s a very good thing, because it gives that child the sense of OK, that’s my action and I can change it. So, I can take that naughty action and I can turn it into a good thing. And I can influence it. And that’s really important. We need to empower children so that they know that they are in control of their own actions. That they are in control of their own destiny.

Why is it best to never call a child ‘naughty’?

In this video, James Nottingham explains how we can communicate effectively with young children to encourage rather than hold back their social and emotional development.

  • Were you surprised by anything that James said?
  • Are you aware of any labels you might use for the children in your care?
  • How do you think these labels might affect the children in your care?

Share your thoughts with us below.

This article is from the free online

English in Early Childhood: Language Learning and Development

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education