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Controlling the Power of Words: Teaching Students How to Confront Insults

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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When I was about six years old, I called my older brother a slew of four-letter words. My wise grandmother took me aside and told me, "There are no bad words, but some words make other people feel bad. The words you just used are OK to say if you are all alone, but never with other people." The obvious point she made was that it's wrong to hurt others. This was consistent with the way I was raised, although I never was and am not always able to live up to this important value.

In fact, it took me 50 years to fully understand the real meaning of what she was saying. Her most important lesson was how much power we give to words. This power leads to control. Words have no power on their own. It's the emotional connection we attribute to certain words that allow them to heal, express love, or infuriate us. Many words are so strong in their power that people lose jobs and are even killed because of them.

Words with this kind of power typically involve anti-Semitism, racism, religious defamation, sexual orientation, or cultural attacks. Children in school have additional words that can invite a violent reaction, including making fun of the way people look, a comment about family members (especially mothers), disabilities, gang affiliation, or dress. Most teachers have to deal with both insults and their aftermath on a regular basis. Fighting is one of the most serious social problems facing schools today.

I know three effective ways to reduce the power of insults to children. I developed these from what I learned from my grandmother those many years ago. The principle is to reduce the emotional connection from the words. If we take away the power of those words, they can no longer control us. Children and adults have incredible difficulty in learning how to do this, but it can change our lives in a most powerful way: we stop allowing others to control our behavior.

My co-author Allen Mendler and I have taught teachers the following three sets of skills. Many teachers have told me that they didn't believe these techniques had any chance of working with their students. Later, the same teachers told me that after trying them, these ideas worked much better than expected. I hope you're willing to give them a chance. You have nothing to lose.

1. Substitute a New Mental Image

This technique works best with younger students. Have them think of all the words that hurt their feelings. Make a master list. Then teach them to imagine the person saying these mean words in a clown outfit, or with bananas sticking out of their ears. You can use any image that looks ridiculous. Alternately, teach them to hear "your mother" as "your banana." It takes weeks of practice, but kids can learn to replace hateful emotions with silly ones, ones that elicit laugher. This might not work with all of your students, but it will work with many, especially if you take the time to practice.

2. Understand Why a Student Wants to Insult You

With older students, Al Mendler suggests writing two questions on the board:

  • What are some things that other students can say or do to you that really make you angry? (The most common answer given is "your mama.")
  • Why do they say or do these things?

Discussion of this second question includes further questions like: 

  • Are they saying this because they're interested in how your mother is doing?
  • Are they saying these things because they want you to be happy?
  • Are they trying to help you?

Eventually, the students -- even the toughest ones -- conclude that these things are said or done to make you feel bad, to hurt you. Then, each student needs to think of what to say or do to show that they refuse to be hurt and will not respond. Students typically develop responses to aggression with statements like:

  • I'd like to punch you in the face, but you're not worth it.
  • It takes no courage to insult me, but I'll show you real courage by ignoring you.
  • I must have done something really bad to you to make you say these things. Maybe later when I'm not so angry, we can figure out what it is.

3. Understand the Power You Give to Your Tormentor

By responding to taunts with violence, we surrender power over our own feelings and actions. To help your students understand this surrender, discuss the following questions:

  • If somebody says something hurtful to you, do you have a right to be angry?
  • If you get angry and respond violently, do you think you are actually doing what your tormentor wants you to do? Doesn't he hope that you'll get angry enough to feel bad?
  • If someone wants to make you angry, and you do get angry, who is in control of your feelings?
  • Do you want to be controlled by someone who wants to hurt you?
  • If you have a right to be angry but want to be in control of how you act, what can you do?

These activities are all designed to teach students that words have the power to hurt only if they let them. We all have many choices about how to take control in hostile situations. The best of these choices require practice and reminders if we want them to work effectively.

How do you help your students deal with insulting language?

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

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Merle Huerta's picture
Merle Huerta
Learning Center Teacher, Academic Coach, Writer, and Parent of a Blended Family of 13

Sounds advice. I use it with many of my students. When they complain that another student said something unkind, I tell them, "What do you care what they think?" I mentor kids all the time that unkind people have power over us only if we let them. If we let them control our thoughts and feelings, not only are we giving them free rent in our minds.

Sean M. Brooks's picture

It's true that the phycology of violence is not taught in school. This of course is the one environment where it should be taught as students are introduced to and victimized by it through their time there. More teacher education needs to exist within higher education to prepare teachers for educating students about these important subjects.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I really appreciate that way you've taken something so hard and traumatic and broken it down into pieces that kids can work with. I can really see how kids (and the adults who support them) would find this helpful! Thanks for sharing.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

I teach my students that to deal with insults is to give them back. Having a snappy comeback at the ready can often stop teasing in its tracks. I have noticed that kids often size one another up with teasing; when you have a witty response, the teaser will often back down. I also teach my students to ignore the insult which can be an option. More often than not, the insults are planned to get attention, usually at someone else's expense. When the child let it go unnoticed the insult is diffused.

Tiffanie's picture

I really enjoyed this article and I totally agree with it. The students that I deal with see violence all the time. Sometimes its a difficult task to get students to think in a different direction. I can say there's one student that I constantly talk to about life in general, and the reasons she gets into trouble. She really doesn't care what people say about her, but when confronted around her peers, she feels as if she has to stand up for herself. But for the most part, she has turned into a different person in the last year and a half.

Stefania15's picture

I really enjoyed your article. These strategies are ones that I will definitely try in my classroom. Thanks for sharing!

Courtney Baugher's picture

Thanks for the great strategies! This is a topic that my team and I have been struggling with the last few months. I can't wait to share these great ideas!

Karen's picture

A great article to aid teachers. I implement a social-emotional learning curriculum in my kindergarten classroom. The students are receptive to strategies to aid them against bullying.

A.P.'s picture

Thank you for sharing these strategies. I work with high school aged students, and I am continually working to teach my students methods to resolve conflicts without resorting to hurling insults or fighting. I particularly think the second strategy is important becuase it emphasizes how important it is to mediate and discuss the reasons for the conflict in addition to helping students deal with the insults.

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