Why Using Positive Language with Students Is So Important + 15 Examples

Why Using Positive Language with Students Is So Important + 15 Examples

We’ve all seen moving stories about adults who remember a specific phrase, whether positive or negative, that changed their life’s trajectory. From “You are an artist” to “You aren’t good enough,” teachers have the power to move students deeply, or to cause permanent damage. Harvard researchers have determined that the single most significant common factor in building resilient children is those who succeed had at least one “stable and committed” relationship with a caring adult in their life. To be that one person for our students, we have to choose our words wisely. As society works as a whole towards more inclusive and positive language, it’s more essential than ever for teachers to both teach and model excellent language choices. Our students’ futures depend on it. As we all work towards positive language that builds our students up, let’s examine five areas where we can make some word swaps that matter.

#1 Positive reinforcement: Focusing on the child, not the product

Top child development researchers have long encouraged adults to praise a child’s efforts, perseverance, and grit rather than the result. They’ve also warned not to tell them how smart they are, changing the focus away from “permanent” traits and instead giving them the power to achieve and persevere using what they can. For example, if a child studies and does well on a test, and a trusting adult praises how smart they are, what will they think when they fail a test? That they are dumb. Instead, we can focus on noticing their determination in studying well, or their willingness to make test corrections to learn from their mistakes.

Say this, not that: 3 easy swaps to focus more on the child and less on the final product

  • Instead of: “Great job” try “I love how you worked through that tough problem.”
  • Instead of “You are smart!” try “I saw how much effort you put into that!”
  • Instead of “I love what you made!” try “Wow, I wonder how you did that! Can you explain your process to me?”

#2 Emotional intelligence: Saying the right thing when it matters

Part of building those trusted relationships with students is knowing just what to say that will help, rather than making the problem worse. When a student is in distress, the last thing they need is a teacher choosing words that further increase their self-doubt, shame, or frustration. This even applies to a student who has made a bad choice and is “in trouble,” as sometimes they are simply reaching out for positive attention.

Say this, not that: 3 easy swaps to help a child who is misbehaving, struggling, or in emotional distress

  • Instead of “What’s wrong with you?” try “What happened?” giving them the opportunity to explain rather than justify or defend themselves
  • Instead of “Why are you so upset?” try “How can I help?”
  • Instead of asking “What’s wrong” to a student with their head down, you can quietly ask, “Sick, sad, or sleepy?” to determine instantly which course of action you should take next. This can also be done on a post it note (“circle one” style) to increase the privacy of the conversation if other classmates are around.

#3 Gender-neutral language: Updating your common expressions

Depending on your location, your community may find it more or less acceptable or common to say “Hey guys” or “Ladies and gentlemen” when addressing a group of people. As teachers, we have the responsibility to teach progressive language as much as possible, especially when we may be the only environment in which our students can become more educated on this topic. In 2019, Pew Research reported that 1 in 5 Americans know someone who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, and those people are you, your coworkers, your students, and members of their families. There are clear steps you can take as well to make sure your LGBTQ+ students experience an inclusive atmosphere.

Say this, not that: 3 easy swaps to ensure you are demonstrating gender-neutral language in your classroom

  • Instead of assuming your student prefers “he” or “she” especially when you are aware that a student identifies as transgender or gender-neutral, ask their preferred pronouns at the beginning of the year, and work to respectfully help others honor their wishes as well.
  • Instead of addressing the class as “Hey guys,” take a note from our friends to the south and try out “Hey, Y’all!” If you aren’t feeling that, “Hey, friends!” works well too.
  • Instead of “ladies and gentlemen” opt for “class” or “students.”

#4 Inclusivity: Adapting your language to all family situations

Long gone are the days where anyone should be asking a student’s mom to sign their planner (remember planners?!) Around 1 in 4 students are living in single-parent homes, more than any other country in the world, and our language should reflect that. There’s nothing worse for a child than having to inform the teacher they don’t have a mom or dad due to an insensitive and non-inclusive comment. Beyond single parenting, some students live with grandparents, other family members, in foster families, or with other guardians.

Say this, not that: 3 easy swaps to account for all family situations

  • Instead of “ask your parents,” say “ask your grown-ups.”
  • Instead of assuming any child’s family situation, get to know who your students live with. It can go a long way to ask a student “Have you discussed this with your stepdad” (if you know that’s your child’s main guardian) rather than “Have you discussed this with an adult at home.”
  • Instead of referring to anyone’s mom or dad, use “guardian.”

#5 Classroom management: Using positive, not punitive language

No child, or adult really, gets motivated by responding to threats. Instead, focus on clear expectations rather than “what’s going to happen if they don’t…”. This applies to procedural signage around the room, as well as to how you talk to children.

Say this, not that: 3 easy swaps to increase motivation and results in your classroom environment

  • Instead of “If you don’t XYZ, you will lose recess,” try “How can we tackle this mess so we can go outside more quickly?!”
  • Instead of “Quit talking while I’m talking!” try “I expect that you can wait your turn to talk until others have finished.”
  • Instead of “Don’t stand on the furniture,” try “Please stay seated.”

These simple positive language swaps make huge differences.

Come connect with other educators in the Empowered Teachers community!


Why Using Positive Language with Students Is So Important + 15 Examples

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Alexandra Frost

Alexandra Frost is a freelance journalist and high school publications teacher in Cincinnati, OH. She's worked with other publications such as Glamour, Women's Health, Reader's Digest, and more. She has three young sons under age four and has been teaching high school for ten years. She encourages her students to develop communication skills, independence, and a passion for writing in their authentic writers' voices. To connect or read more of her work please her website or follow her on social media: Twitter Instagram Linked In.

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