George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Language of Choice and Support

Alex Shevrin

Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator
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Adult happily greeting a student in the hallway as students move to class

Language shapes our worldview. The narratives we hear around us influence our perceptions and understandings. Take Carol Dweck's concept of fixed versus growth mindset. One of the primary tools for fostering a growth mindset is changing how we talk about learning, from how we give feedback to how we address failure. Dweck's work shows that simple shifts in language of praise and feedback can hold immense power in children's view of themselves and of learning. We should harness this same power to better support our students who struggle with mental health challenges on a daily basis.

One in five children between age nine and 17 have mental health challenges that impair their daily functioning. About 50 percent of high school students with mental illness drop out. These children are not all in special education classrooms, alternative schools, or special programs: they're in every single one of our classrooms, no matter the geographical setting, socioeconomic level, or racial or ethnic group. When we understand the vastness of these challenges, we can intentionally align our daily practice to support all students.

Breaking Bad Habits: Changing Unintentionally Stigmatizing Language

Stigma is powered by language. So is acceptance. On the most basic level, we can remove unintentionally derogatory language from our everyday speech, such as crazy, nuts, insane, and so on, when what we mean is unbelievable, unusual, or unexpected. These word choices may seem small, but when we hear these tiny statements a hundred times a day, they lace together in a web of meaning. A student struggling with mental health challenges might pick up from your casual language whether or not you can be a trusted adult to turn to in a time of crisis or need. When we choose neutral, open, or accepting language, we indicate to students that we will be open and accepting to them as people.

We should use language that accurately describes what we're trying to say, rather than falling back on figures of speech that may fuel negative attitudes toward those with mental health challenges. If I say, "I'm so OCD!" when I really mean that I like things to be organized, I misrepresent the point that I'm trying to make and demonstrate a lack of understanding or empathy for someone who truly experiences obsessive-compulsive disorder. Such language can minimize the true challenges that a student may face.

I can also avoid minimizing when I ask more questions to try to accurately describe a student who is struggling. If I see a set of behaviors and describe them as stress, lack of motivation, or defiance, I might miss that the student is actually anxious, depressed, or in a mental health crisis. I constantly remind myself to ask, "What’s the story behind the story?" and try to gather more information before assigning a label.

Finally, I can lessen unintentional stigma by using person-first language:

  • Instead of "my bipolar student," say "my student who carries a bipolar diagnosis."
  • Instead of "my depressed student," say "my student who struggles with depression."

A diagnosis is not a complete identity, and when we put the person first in our speech, we indicate that we also put the person first in our thoughts and in our actions. Person-first language says, "I accept and care about you as a human, and everything else is secondary."

This isn’t about being "politically correct," but about choosing our words with intention and care -- the same skill that many of us ask our students to learn for writing and speaking in class. When we truly care about our students, we should care just as much how we communicate to and about them.

Building Good Practices: Language That Empowers

When we choose words that empower and include, we can help students internalize tools and strategies for moving forward and growing toward their goals. Changing our language on its own isn't enough. Euphemisms for the same old attitudes won't help. Instead, some of these language choices can drive a culture shift toward empowerment as we work to align our walk with our talk.

At our therapeutic school, one word you’ll hear often is support. When a student is having a hard time -- academically, emotionally, socially -- teachers offer that student support options. Support (rather than help) underscores our belief in our students' capacity to improve their own lives. Support lifts students up rather than condescending. The word choice reflects a bigger idea that we as educators are not in the position to save our students, but rather to counsel their own change process.

We also use the word choice to lend empowerment through internalization of a sense of control over one's own life. Many students with mental health challenges can feel a lack of control or influence over their lives, especially when these students interact with institutions and systems of care.

Over and over, I've seen students like this initiate a power struggle to fulfill the script of a teacher-student power dynamic: "I hate school, I'm just going to drop out;" or "This is dumb, I’m not doing this;" or a string of words that I won't repeat here. The expected response from me is: "Get back to your work," "That's not allowed," or "That's inappropriate." Instead, I interrupt the script and say, "Hmm. That's a choice you can make. What might happen if you made that choice?" This opens a conversation about choices and consequences, which helps the student build decision-making skills rather than feeling powerless in the face of authority.

Similarly, when reflecting on a student's academic work or behavior, I might say: "You made a choice to work together with the group, and you ended up with this really great project!" or "Based on your choice not to do homework, you didn't earn credit for this assignment." Reframing school as a series of choices helps students internalize a sense of ownership, control, and responsibility for their decisions. A culture of combined choice and support creates an environment where students drive their own education with the option to access others along the way.

We are shaped by the words we hear, see, and use. As teachers, we have great influence over the language that our students internalize during a formative time. Let's use our best intentions to choose words that support all students to change their own lives for the better.

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dyslexicadv's picture

Of course, Alex! The quote is from a state report here:

From the Wikipedia project Disability Style Guide

People-first language[edit]
People-first language is recommended by many style guides.[1] The purpose is to prevent people from being defined entirely by their disabilities, by framing the person and the disability as separate entities (i.e. people with disabilities rather than disabled people). However, this syntax also has many critics. Wikipedia mostly favors people-first language with some specific exceptions. In particular, identity-first language is generally preferred with regards to deafness, blindness, and autism. Some people who have these conditions experience the disability as an important component of their identity, unlike for example wheelchair users who generally reject the idea that wheelchairs define who they are.

Your comments hit the nail on the head - asking students how they want to be described and what language they prefer is always best - and when encountering language that we don't personally use, exercising good will, forbearance, and charity perhaps the best of all!

I would like to add dyslexia and dyslexic to that article on Wikipedia by the way. Our community is proud of the great minds and different thinkers who have come out about being dyslexic - it is a part of our identity.

Monique's picture

I've always appreciated "person-first" language because, at the very least, it can raise awareness about the importance of developing relationships with our students. If we allow ourselves to get to know our students for who they are, rather than making assumptions that we already know them because we know their diagnoses or challenges or even their "gifts", we create an opportunity for connection with children, their families and communities. I think it's stereotyping and judgement which negatively impacts kids, our connection to kids, and their ability to work to their fullest potential.

koco's picture

Enjoyed this article. The importance of language is so important for all students and staff in our interactions with each other. The concept of "person-first" vs. "condition" or "label" is so vitally important. In my work with RtI Academic and Behavior support teams, I am going to reference your article and ways in which we can enhance our everyday practice of language.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

"Over and over, I've seen students like this initiate a power struggle to fulfill the script of a teacher-student power dynamic: "I hate school, I'm just going to drop out;" or "This is dumb, I'm not doing this;" or a string of words that I won't repeat here. The expected response from me is: "Get back to your work," "That's not allowed," or "That's inappropriate." Instead, I interrupt the script and say, "Hmm. That's a choice you can make. "

or... I use this response with students and teachers (who say, "I can't do this lesson." or "This won't work."

What will enable you to do this lesson? To try this technique?

With kids.. This is dumb. --- "Okay, how can we make it un-dumb."
I hate school---"What can we do so you don't hate it as much."


parentwhiz's picture
Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Consultant, Author, Presenter, Blogger, Former Educator, Parent, Grandparent.

Yes. People are not their disorders. They have a disorder, or a condition. All mental health conditions are treatable in this world now, by curing them or managing the ones that are not technically curable. We have so much knowledge about mental health now that no one needs to suffer, although many still do. Stigma is the biggest barrier to getting treatment so anything we can do to minimize stigma goes a long way. Educators who are well informed about the nature of mental health problems can certainly do much to break down stigma through the use of correct language and connecting with students another parents. Good article!

Will Minton's picture
Will Minton
Traveling the world to learn about education

The little language choices we make really do make a huge difference, not only in how students perceive our comments but also in reinforcing what we expect of them. I'd normally cringe from an analogy that compared students to rats but... bear with me.

A recent episode of RadioLab looked at expectations and lab rats. A researcher indiscriminately labeled one cage of rats dumb and another smart and then had lab assistants run those rats through mazes. the result? The 'smart' rats peformed about two times as well as the 'dumb' rats even though the rats were actually 'the same.' How could this happen? It turns out just giving the lab assistants the impression that the rats were one way or the other led to all sorts of subconscious differences in how they were handled that effected their times in the maze. The researchers had no idea they were treating them differently. If little differences matter are picked up by rats, imagine the effect subtle low expectations can have on human beings.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Will, that sounds super interesting! Do you remember what the Radiolab episode is called? I'd love to listen to it. So true that our own expectations and biases can get in our way sometimes. This is true for students - when they perceive themselves as kids who "can't," it gets in their way of observing themselves clearly. Reflection is so important for helping students see what they are actually learning and accomplishing.

Allison White's picture

Great post! It's so important for adults who work with kids to be aware and intentional about the language we use. For more on this topic, I highly recommend the books Choice Words and also Opening Minds both by Peter H. Johnson.

Meryl Catan's picture

I appreciated this article. Nowadays, a lot of parents were training their children into different language for them to have a multi-lingual child. but in my own humble opinion the child must learn it's native language first before other because it will be shameful to its country if the child didn't even know it's mother tongue. In the positive side, it is the child's advantage in communicating to others because he/she can speak another language.

Christina N. Smith's picture
Christina N. Smith
Literary catalyst inspiring a love for reading in children as a means to promote their self-growth & emotional intelligence

Alex, thank you for writing this article and I wholeheartedly agree with what you are saying. Choosing your words carefully is of such great importance. It can mean a world of difference in shaping how a child views him or her self. Do you know how I learned about the value of choosing words with careful intent? I had a mentor to teach me the value of this as an adult. Before that, I honestly thought I was communicating effectively.

Additionally, when I went to nursing school, I was told to use the word "assist" instead of "help" when assisting elderly residents with their "activities of daily living". Although these words are synonymous, each carries a "different" feeling with it. Hence the encouragement to use certain words over others in order to send a specific message to the person receiving it. It says, "you matter" and "I validate you"...just a choosing of one word over another.

When you know better, you do better. One never has to stop learning, unless this is what they so choose.

Alex, reading your article makes me wish I could go back to school as a young girl right now to receive the benefits of so much awareness around choosing words carefully.

While I know I can't go back, the good news is I can be a light for children now, right? We all can as leaders in children's lives.

Thank your for sharing this powerful message Alex. Continued Success~

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