George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Positive Words Go a Long Way

Simple ways to frame what you say to students to encourage and empower them.
A teacher has a friendly chat with a small group of her students.
A teacher has a friendly chat with a small group of her students.
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When I started teaching, I didn’t truly understand the power of words and their ability to influence the lives of students. I quickly learned that the effectiveness of my lessons and the classroom culture are heavily influenced by the language I use and how I use it.

One of the hardest things I had to do was learn how to change my “teacher” language so that I could encourage and empower students on a daily basis. Using powerful and effective teacher language takes a lot of practice and awareness. Therefore, one of my goals each year is to ensure that my communication with students is encouraging and empowering, in order to guide them toward achieving their ultimate goals. I want them to learn how to make constructive choices by reflecting on past decisions.

Positive language is a driving force in creating a classroom community that learns together, grows together, and supports one another. Here are a few ways I use positive language in my classroom to empower students.

1. Convey Faith in Student Abilities

When our teacher language uses words and tones that display faith in student intentions, we show students that we believe in them. Using positive words and encouraging students to meet expectations allows students an opportunity to fulfill those expectations, or even surpass them. Communicating to students that you believe in them and their abilities gives students the confidence they need to collaborate with others, become respectful listeners, and work competently by reiterating positive behaviors and encouraging all students to do the same.

For instance, you can say to a student who consistently runs in the halls, “I know you remember the rules about hallway transitions, and I appreciate you trying to be safe.” This conveys to students that you have faith that they’re trying to be cooperative in school, while you’re also enforcing the rule.

Students learn best from discussing mistakes and having multiple opportunities to productively struggle. Consistent encouragement and support through this learning curve allows students to build confidence in their abilities and teaches them perseverance.

2. Practice Positive Vocabulary

Not only is it important for teachers to model positive language, but students should be practicing it as well, on a daily basis. And having students reflect on their language to identify words that have negative connotations will allow them to become more aware of the impact of their language on themselves and others.

In terms of modeling, I use the one-and-three rule in my classroom. For every negative statement I make, I work to include at least three positive statements to the whole class. This takes practice, but it means there are ample opportunities for students to be praised for their hard work.

Students should have opportunities to reflect on their statements and revise their language to reframe it in more positive ways. With repetition and consistent implementation, students will learn to use positive language to make learning a more meaningful and thoughtful process.

3. Choose Your Words Wisely

Language that is inclusive and empowering allows for mutual trust and reciprocal communication to occur more freely within the classroom. For example, when students are struggling, words like support and guide empower them to complete work on their own with the option of guidance—you’re not there to help them do the work.

Reflecting on word choice goes beyond the classroom and allows students to advocate for themselves because they know their teacher is supportive, empathetic, inclusive, and accepting. And reflecting on your word choice displays to students that it’s OK to take a moment to organize, prepare, and present their thoughts in a way that’s meaningful to everyone in the class.

4. Be Honest and Direct

The use of compassionate and straightforward language allows students to build trust in their teachers and fosters an environment of growth. Students who are spoken to directly and honestly are more likely to feel respected and safe, while also receiving the support they need to be successful both academically and behaviorally.

Interacting with students directly and honestly also communicates to them that you have clear expectations and will provide supportive and constructive feedback that they can learn from. For example, instead of saying, “Can you please wait your turn to speak?” you could say, “The expectation is that you raise your hand to speak. Please raise your hand and wait if you have a question.”

Direct and honest communication allows little room for vague interpretations of rules and/or expectations, which in turn, provides students with a safer and more trust-filled environment.

5. Avoid Using Don’t

Many times we teachers are quick to emphasize to students what they’re not supposed to do or say to others in class. A positive spin on this is to replace don’t statements with more positive ones. For instance, instead of saying, “Don’t use pens in my class,” you could say, “For practicing math problems, we’ll only be using pencils, in case we make a mistake.” Students will be more likely to bring pencils to class because they’re made aware of the expectation and reasoning, opposed to solely being told what not to bring.

Reframing don’t statements is another example of positive language and allows students to reflect on their actions to make more positive choices within the classroom.

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Alyssa Nucaro's picture

Thank you for reading! I think positive words have a real influence on how we choose to respond and behave. It is so important to take notice of what we say and do in the classroom to better motivate and empower students!

Michelle Wilson's picture

I couldn't agree more with the author's suggestions on how to use positive language in the classroom. While I currently hold an administrative role at the school where I work, I spent 3 months last spring as a substitute in the library. During my brief stint as a specialist teacher, I found that engaging with my students with positive language led to the best outcomes in terms of behavior and personal growth. In one of my read-aloud classes, there was a male student who I struggled with every week. He couldn't sit still, he interrupted me while I was reading to the group, and he would poke and prod at any student who was within arm's length of where he was sitting. After multiple attempts to change his behavior using traditional phrases such as, "please stop disrupting your classmates" or "your body language is unacceptable", I took a few cues from the more seasoned teachers around me and went with a more positive approach. I started to convey faith in [this] student's abilities by saying things at the beginning of class like, "I know that you are going to have a great experience in read-aloud today, because you know the rules about staying in your own space and listening when someone else is speaking." By stating my confidence in this student's ability to follow the rules, I challenged him to think about his actions in advance and reinforced that I knew he was capable of listening for the whole class. Needless to say, this student's behavior started to change for the better once I changed my approach to communicating with him.

-Michelle Wilson, University Child Development School, Seattle, WA

Alyssa Nucaro's picture

Thanks for reading, Michelle! I had the same type of experience and decided it was important to share! I'm glad you found this article helpful!

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