It does not take long before we start to attach labels to children in any classroom. We begin to sort, both by academics and behavior. Soon we find ourselves using terms like the helper, the social butterfly, different or odd, and resistant. In some cases our patience is tested and we hear ourselves using terms like obnoxious, lazy, rude, manipulative and slow.Our attention might shift to the parents, and we start assuming the parents don't care and they are lazy too.
The pressure of high-stakes testing makes it easy to fall into the trap of assigning blame to students and their families. As teachers, we often feel helpless in our efforts to explain test scores. We know we have worked hard. Deep down we know tests that are heavily text-laden are incredibly unfair, and sometimes downright cruel, for a child with limited English language experience, or a child with learning challenges. There is a lot of blame and humiliation to go around, and we might resort to blaming the very children we work to protect from the test.
This year I started my second year as an instructional coach for one elementary school. Our school is one of the poorest in our district. Our families are often in difficult situations, and our students come to us with many needs, strengths and challenges. We use our allotted staff meeting time two days a month for professional development, which I often provide. Planning with my principal and counselor, we decided to begin the year by focusing on reframing our language in response to behavior of children.
Matching Talk and Perceptions
I often begin our professional development meetings by asking teachers to do some reflective writing by either responding to a quote or addressing a prompt. This writing is directly tied to the work we are about to do together. The lesson plan for the reframing staff development follows below:
1. Take 3-5 minutes to write about a student from last year's class with whom you really connected, and felt you had a strong impact on their learning experience.
2. Turn to a neighbor at your table and talk about the student you chose to write about.
3. Take 3-5 minutes to write about a student from last year's class who you found challenging (either academically and/or behaviorially).
4. Turn to a neighbor at your table and talk about the student you chose to write about.
5. Circle all the adjectives or words you used to describe both students. On chart paper, I created a "T" chart and recorded as teachers volunteered the words they used to describe the first student, and then the second student. We talked about what we noticed and it was very clear. The terms we used to described the first student were strength-based and positive. The words we used to describe the second student were deficit-based and negative.
Our counselor had a list of reframing terms from the U.S. Department of Education mentor training she had attended a few years ago. Using this list, she led the group in coming up with positive words to replace some often-used negative terms. Some examples:
Negative Label: Manipulative
Positive Label: Self-Advocates
Negative Label: Odd
Positive Label: Unique
Negative Label: Resistant
Positive Label: Cautious
After our brainstorming of several positive alternatives to negative labels, teachers revised their writing regarding the students who challenged them the previous year, reframing the adjectives as positive. They shared their "before" and "after" sentences with the whole group.
We then talked about current students and what they have learned about them thus far. Teachers were encouraged to talk with others who knew the students well (i.e., former teachers of students, specialists, reading teachers). This was billed as an opportunity to practice their new learning on reframing.
It was enjoyable to observe hands going over mouths as teachers "caught" themselves using pejorative labels and then putting their heads together to come up with a positive label. Over the past few weeks since our staff discussion, teachers have continued their work. Often mentioned is the power in discovering how easy it is to fall into the trap of negatively labeling behaviors, and the unseen effect those labels have on our attitudes as we work with our students. As one teacher put it, "No wonder I continued to struggle with that one student all year along. Look at the language I used to describe her!"
Teachers have even reported the effect of reframing on their talk with their own children. Rosie said, "Instead of telling my daughter how awful and messy her room was, I told her I appreciated her unique organizational style. It didn't clean up her room, but it sure kept me from becoming a crazed maniac when I walked past it!"
Our students with challenges and chaos in their lives need to believe we see them in a positive light. It all begins with the power of our words — whether spoken or not.