When Students Are Labeled “Too Much”

… the authoritative teacher, who drowns the freedom off the student, belittles student’s rights to be curious and restless ….

Freire 1996, 60

Oftentimes, seeking belonging for all students can be a difficult battle within the classroom. This can be especially true for students who are described as presenting “challenging behavior.” And this is a common way to label the behavior of students with disabilities in US schools. Students with “challenging behavior” are too loud. Too boisterous. Too interruptive. These students are, in essence, just “too much.” And it is these students—the “too much” students in classrooms around the country—that inspired us to write a children’s book about the power of being considered “too much.” This book, titled “The Too Much Unicorn,” is the story of Eunice, a child who is often told she is too much. She uses too much whip cream on her waffles. She talks too much during the movies and on the school bus. She dances too much in the hallway at school. But while everyone else seems concerned about Eunice’s too much-ness, Eunice knows that being too much is just right. In fact, she knows it is what makes her a unicorn!


When students are labeled as “too much,” the response is often exclusion. When classrooms prioritize control of students behaviours and bodies, the students exhibiting behaviours we consider “challenging” or “too much” are too often separated, segregated, secluded from the classroom community. When we prioritize control in this way, we neglect connection. We deny our students, and ourselves, the opportunity to show up as our true selves.


Perhaps the most powerful way to shift this paradigm in our classrooms is through developing relationship with students. Making meaningful connections to and with students, empowers teachers to see past the labels of “challenging behaviours,” beyond the discourse about controlling behavior, and move towards an understanding of behaviour in order to truly support students in inclusive classrooms.

In order to improve both students’ and teachers’ experiences of inclusive education, we want to share some background and context about behavior with important implications for practice. Literature shows that terms like “serious misconduct,” “behavioural problems,” “aggressive behaviour,” “misbehaviour,” or “challenging behaviours” are regularly used in schools to describe students who do not comply with the rules or do not follow the norm expected for their behaviour—they’re “too much.” While these terms do not refer to a specific disability category, they are consistently used to informally describe students with disabilities in US schools. The Individual with Disabilites Education Act (IDEA) does formally list Emotional and Behavioural Disturbance as a specific category of disability that is defined for children who respond inappropriately in emotional situations or may have difficulties on interpersonal relationships. However, it is important to note that this label does not necessarily refer to any or all students who routinely present, or are described as having, challenging behaviour. Teachers, principals, and related service providers frequently use such descriptors, but rarely examine what their use of such language means for students or how they are supported in school. Such assumptions are problematic for students with and without disability labels, but it is important to note that certain disability categories are subject to more behavioural scrutiny than others. For example, students with disability labels like autism spectrum disorder or intellectual disabilities are commonly believed to present challenging behaviours.


It is important to recognize how specific students and disability labels are framed in relation to behaviour so that we can appropriately provide support, services, and safety to all members of a school community. However, we also must be careful not to overuse negative language about behaviour without making purposeful and ongoing effort to get to know a student first. When students’ behaviours are considered potentially hostile or sometimes violent, students tend to be labelled and placed in special education, often in segregated settings. Such exclusion significantly impacts a student’s educational future. In fact, government data shows that the students labelled in the three categories cited above tend to be excluded from instruction in general education more often than their peers. National data shows that students with labels of emotional or behavioural disturbance are educated on average 32% of their school day in general education classes, while students with autism spectrum disorder labels tend to spend 29% of their day in these classrooms, and students with cognitive disability labels are only taught in general education classrooms for 12% of their school day. Comparatively, children with language impairments are educated the general education classroom 88% of their school day and those with specific learning disabilities spend 51% of their time in school learning in the general education classroom. It is clear from this data that students labeled with disabilities that present what is often considered “challenging behaviour” are also the students that are given less access to general education learning environments. This information reveals some dangerous assumptions about students, behaviour, and learning that are deeply embedded in a national discourse about education with more focus on control than on connection. In such environments, students who are considered “too much,” students like Eunice, are being excluded from essential learning opportunities, and receiving messages that they don’t belong.


Inclusive Schooling is about belonging. The more we seek to welcome students of all behavior levels, the more inclusive we will become. Learn more through searching our website and find resources for building inclusion within your own school, including the “Too Much Unicorn.” It’s our hope that through this book, Eunice the unicorn will empower students everywhere to embrace the beauty of being joyfully, stylishly, and confidently their just right self.