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.'
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.
Once, when I was out of the classroom, a teacher told the class I was a kid from a care home. The children were expected to 'make allowances'. It was meant to be a caring act, but it singled me out - and made me the target of constant high & low level bullying. Consequently, I began to feel small, act small. One day I saw a photo of myself in the school rugby team - I was a head taller than the other players. Instantly, I saw myself as I really was. I vowed not be affected by the skewed thinking of others. I took control. Needless to say the bullying soon stopped. But it need not have started. Labels are so destructive.
Oct 14th, 2017
Great article which I will share with my colleagues. I think our profession too often fails to realise the impact of this type of writing on children. I often get frustrated when I read reports filled with initials which I'm told is to avoid breaches in data protection! I think learning institutions can help when delivering qualifying courses, organisations can help by having clear expectations at induction, supervision and self-audit stages, the Care Inspectorate can help at inspection and children can also help by insisting that using acronyms is depersonalised - but we need to help them find their voice to challenge! If we are going to stick with an acronym that describes a child's looked after status how about we ask the children to come up with something different. Maybe their font of youth may even come up with an emoji which best captures a system which should represent hope, determination, aspiration and ambition for their future!
Oct 16th, 2017
I couldn't agree more. I don't have direct experience of being in these groups but I run Ofsted's publications and brand. As part of the style guide, we advise against using any acronyms of groups of children, pupils or learners. We sometimes get grumbles about this. I've just shared your article on our internal Yammer. Thank you so much. It expresses perfectly why we should not use these.
Oct 24th, 2017
Labels can be misleading and used to undermine an individual's self worth. For example, many of the UK's child migrants were called orphans. Most assumed that this meant that their parents were dead.
Many further assumed that they were all alone in the world. Many former child migrants were middle aged before they realised that this was a misleading label with little or no basis in facts or reality. Imagine the depths of their sense of betrayal when they realised how much heartache this label had caused, how many lost opportunities it created. Labels need to evaluated and not simply accepted. Whose interests do they serve and are they really necessary are just two of the questions we need to ask about labels.
Oct 24th, 2017
Like others I totally agree and have tried for many years to avoid such acronyms for many reasons. In my early days as a Social Worker, I recall a really inspirational Area Manager in his speech as he retired also asking us not to refer to children as 'kids' for similar good reasons. I have tried to follow, although the terms have crept into all sorts of branding. Thanks Graham and others who have added comments; I don't feel such a lone voice.
Oct 25th, 2017
Many thanks to Alan, John, Elizabeth, Val and Moyra for their comments. Alan's story reminds me that simple acts can be influential, either positively or negatively. Teachers often ask how they can make a difference. Here is a perfect example: try to find a way to help a child to feel confident or special. John has identified action points for institutions (and perhaps a task for CELCIS to have dialogue with reps of qualifying courses) and the Care Inspectorate (and we could add Education Scotland). Thanks Val for your comments about the distress caused by the use of the label, 'orphan'. Thanks also Moyra for your observation about the use of 'kids', common in tabloid headings ('teens' as well), even above otherwise positive stories.
Oct 26th, 2017
Elizabeth, I meant to say that I think a style guide is a good way of tackling this issue in reports and guidance. I'd love to see the Ofsted style guide.
Oct 31st, 2017
Hi Graham - earlier today I was having a phone conversation and was quickly trying to take shorthand notes. I couldn't bring myself to write the acronym 'LAC' because of what you had taught me years ago, and in the time it took to write out the words in full, even though I might be missing out another snatched word from the conversation, I knew it was the right thing. Thanks for articulating the complexities involved in that decision so well in your third section.
Nov 1st, 2017
I remember being referred to as the 'meeting subject' when attending a children's panel. The use of Acronyms and other detached language only serves to further disconnect the young person from the services that are responsible for that youngsters care. When a young persons engagement of support services is lost and becomes forced, the trust of that youngster in their sometimes only support network is also lost. Creating barriers to engagement making that young persons situation less able to understand, and much harder to improve. A human approach costs nothing and creates a confidence that someone cares!
Jan 27th, 2018
We should all take the extra second or so it takes to speak and write words in full. Graham’s article gives the reasons for this succinctly.