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I couldn't bring myself to write the acronym 'LAC'

Sunday 2 December 2018

labels with copyright cropped.pngSince I wrote a CELCIS blog last year appealing for an end to the practice of referring to looked after children as 'LAC', we have received many reactions to the piece, and I have had more experiences reminding me why I felt the need to write it in the first place.

Having held my ground in a multi-disciplinary research group when the use of 'LAC' would have saved precious words in a grant application, I was pleased when Elizabeth Boulton, who runs Ofsted's publications and brand, told us that in their 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."

John Ryan of Aberlour suggested there is a role for universities and colleges, social services agencies and the Care Inspectorate in modelling non-stigmatising language. I would add researchers and academic journals to the list of potential offenders who could be encouraged to be more proactive in representing children more positively in text. In an otherwise excellent article on the consequence of being labelled 'looked after', published in the British Educational Research Journal, it is ironic that the authors used the acronym 'LACYP' 60 times.

I knew it was the right thing

Alison Hennessy of the University of Stirling shared an example of an occasion when she was taking shorthand notes of a telephone conversation. "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."

Several of the comments referred to the effect of demeaning language on individuals. Kevin Lafferty remembered: "...being referred to as the 'meeting subject' when attending a children's panel." He made the important point that: "The use of acronyms and other detached language only serves to further disconnect the young person from the services that are responsible for that youngster's care. When a young person's engagement of support services is lost and becomes forced, the trust of that youngster in their sometimes only support network is also lost... A human approach costs nothing and creates a confidence that someone cares!"

The children's author, Alan Dapré, recalled when: "...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 and 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."

Also on the theme of taking control, John Ryan made the point that children themselves can challenge the depersonalising use of acronyms, but that workers need to help young people to find their voice.

The negative impact of language 

A number of the comments raised the wider issue of the negative impact of language that stigmatises children and undermines their self-worth. Val Humphreys gave the example of UK child migrants being referred to as '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."

Language matters. How we speak and write about children betrays our attitudes and may influence our expectations of what they can achieve.

If you missed the original October 2017 blog post, Let's Stop Referring to Children by Acronyms, you can read it here:

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 an 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.

Dr Graham Connelly is Education Programme Advisor at CELCIS.



Topic: Language, Stigma
Author: Graham Connelly

Please add a comment

Posted by Jane on
Hi, I couldn't agree more with this. As a foster carer, my personal beef is the use of the word placement. His childhood and our family life should not be reduced to such a narrow and disparaging word. It's not a word you would use to a parent about their birth child so why use it for a child in foster care. Ask me about his likes and dislikes, what activities he enjoys or who his friends are, these are normal questions to ask about a child. 'How's the placement going?' is not a normal question.
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