Labelling children as those with learning and behavioural difficulties can be detrimental to them and their teachers as well, says a new study.
Linda Graham of Queensland University of Technology (QUT) found that children labelled as having "ADHD-like" (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) symptoms, for example, were at a disadvantage when it came how people perceived them.
"I have been looking at the things we say and how that affects what we do, and I have looked at the files of students who were referred to special schools for behaviour," she said.
Her interest was in the pervasive nature of the discourses around ADHD. "ADHD went from something which was relatively obscure in the early 1990s, which most people didn't know about unless they had a child with it, to all of a sudden becoming something everyone knows about," she said.
"It is especially problematic when children can end up with an 'informal' diagnosis which becomes a kind of pop-culture explanation for why children behave in certain ways."
She cited the example of one boy who had speech problems and learning difficulties from the age of six and had been described numerous times by schools as having "ADHD-like behaviours".
"This phrase was used to describe everything about him with the use of words like impulsiveness and inattention and hyperactivity, which turned out to be a big problem because his first school, as well as subsequent schools, became fixated on this label informally diagnosing the boy.
"As it turned out, he did not have ADHD, but was speech and language-impaired, which would also give a good explanation to why he was explosive: if he was verbally challenged by another child he would be more likely to hit out.
"However, because of the red-herring effect of ADHD, this was misinterpreted as impulsivity with terrible, long-lasting consequences for the boy concerned."