Mad, bad or just sad? An exploration of the importance of not stereotyping or labelling young people.

Monday 15 May 2017

Having a label may help us understand ourselves and our behaviour. I’ve had students who show signs of being on the autistic spectrum yet have never received a diagnosis. Without this label these young people can struggle to access the help and support they need.  

The young people I work with are often described as “those who are not fulfilling their potential in mainstream education”. This label is accurate to a degree. All the young people are struggling at school, be it academically, socially or behaviourally and some are taking medication for conditions such as ADHD or depression. The problem comes when the labels the young people are given equate to a stereotype which isn’t positive, in this case I often hear words such as “naughty” or “mental” being used, not just by adults but by other young people. 

Recently I asked the young people I work with what people called them or assumed about them that they didn’t like. Here are just a few: 

People say I’m too loud 

People say I am dumb  

People say I’m too hyper 

It seems now that young people fall into two categories – gifted and talented/academic or disruptive/challenging. By doing this we risk saying that if you aren’t good at sitting quietly and writing that you must not be talented and therefore we fail to recognise the potential of a young person simply because their behaviour challenges us.  

In a recent workshop I went to we were presented with two scenarios – one in which a colleague walked into the staff room and kicked over a chair, the second in which a young person walked into a classroom and did the same thing. The differences in reactions were astounding, almost everyone asked the adult if they were ok. However, when it came to the young person the responses were much angrier – “why did you do that?”  We had all immediately labelled the young person as a “troublemaker”, and forgotten to treat them as a person. 

This has a lasting effect, as the young person becomes aware of these negative labels it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy – “you say I’m naughty so I’ll be naughty” or more dangerous still “I’m a bad kid, I can’t change”. The young people I work with have told us how they find it impossible to escape this cycle of behaviour.  

What I try constantly to do in my work is to broaden the young people’s horizons and empower them to reject the labels they don’t find useful. Individuals may be disruptive but they are so much more than that. They are funny, smart and full of energy, and they care passionately about the world around them and want that world to listen to them. That young man who can’t get to session on time dedicates his evenings to working on skate-boarding tricks to upload to YouTube. That young woman who takes medication to control her ADHD still has talent and wants to achieve. The young man who is in trouble with the police is a fantastic dancer.  

It can be hard to reject these labels we are given and that is where I believe us as theatre practitioners come in. We must try to support the young people we work with and provide them with a place where they can begin to see beyond their labels; we must never despair when they sometimes live up to their label, instead we must continue to look beyond it, at the person, not the behaviour.  

Hannah Uttley 

Hannah is currently running a vocational Work Related Learning programme called LifeStage for 14-16 year olds at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. The programme has been running in different forms for 19 years and was previously known as Acting Out. The programme is targeted at those young people who are not achieving their potential in mainstream education.