Let’s stop referring to children by acronyms

09 October 2017

Topic: Education
Author: Graham Connelly

Dr Graham Connelly discusses the use of acronyms when talking about looked after children and children in care.

When I became a teacher in the 1970s, among the many survival skills I had to learn was being able to decode the many acronyms and other abbreviations used routinely by colleagues. There were many.

This is still the case - there is an ever-evolving vocabulary of abbreviations in current use by education, social work and health professionals. Think of Girfec, ASN, or CRWIA. The last one is new to me and apparently stands for Child Rights and Welfare Impact Assessment.

Every occupation of course has its own specialist shorthand. Sometimes this is just for convenience, simplifying the language used regularly among people doing the same job. It can also be a barrier, making it unnecessarily hard for people on the outside to decode the text or speech to get to the important information. But there is a darker side to acronyms.

Acronyms and negative labelling

Acronyms and other abbreviations can be demeaning, especially when used to refer to people. The most demeaning acronym I learned as a new teacher was ROSLA, now thankfully shrouded in the mists of time. This was shorthand for 'raising of the school leaving age,' the minimum age for leaving school in Scotland having been increased from 15 to 16 in 1973. The acronym itself was inoffensive, but it was often used to refer to groups of children, such as in: 'Did you have the ROSLA class today?'

But for many years now I've tried hard to follow a personal rule to avoid using acronyms and other abbreviations to refer to children. In particular, I don't use acronyms which refer to looked after children (LAC), looked after and accommodated children (LAAC), or a more recent variant, children looked after (CLA).

Why acronyms should be consigned to the bin

In my view, there are two good reasons for consigning these particular acronyms to the computer recycle bin, and its spoken word equivalent.

First, the physical act of writing out or saying the words in full serves to remind us that looked after children are children and young people first and not a category. Each child has individual talents and claims on a positive future. And is it really such an inconvenience to type a few more letters?

Second, there is an unfortunate phonological aspect to the acronym LAC because of the obvious association with 'lack' or deficit. As far as I am aware, this is not talked about much in professional circles, but the connection is not lost on young people who say that the label makes them feel inadequate.

Acronyms when applied to children carry a lot of power. Avoiding their use does not prevent the stereotyping of children, for example, having low expectations about achievements just because a child or young person has a care background. But it does act as an effective reminder that children cannot be reduced to a set of characteristics. The act of deleting the acronym and replacing it with the full text is symbolic of going beyond the stereotype and seeing the individual shining through.

Impact of labels

Ellen Maloney, in a recent article in The Guardian, wrote about the impact that labels had on her during her experience in the care system. 'I was labelled as all kinds of things: neurotic, obsessive, psychotic, depressed... These labels stuck. And they hurt.' She makes an important point about the power of language to define people and to interfere with their development as individuals.

'The language we use moulds our thoughts and becomes the filter through which we see the world. Questioning the labels we use to describe people and thinking about what those labels mean is important because it changes how we look at people and, in turn, how we treat them.'

Avoiding acronyms

There are many places where the acronym LAC and its variants are used. These include references in reports, official guidance, glossaries, academic papers and websites. The shorthand is also in everyday use in speech, at meetings, conferences and in conversations among professionals.

Children can pick up the habit too and sometimes refer to themselves as 'LAC' because they know the acronym is used and understood by professionals.

It might take a bit of effort but I think we should call out uses of acronyms, in written and spoken form, where they refer to children. It would be a simple way of demonstrating good corporate parenting. Avoiding the use of the acronym LAC and its variants will not prevent the labelling of children, but it might be a good start.

Read Graham's follow up article here

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