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.