Naming Students in Positive Ways

Naming Students in Positive Ways

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.From your “Good morning” greeting to your “Good-bye” at the last bell, every school day gives you many opportunities to address students with words that give them an image of themselves as engaged and capable learners. You can make the most of these opportunities by using envisioning language—a type of positive language used by Responsive Classroom teachers—to name and describe students in positive ways. Some examples of positive naming:

  • “Welcome to Room 101, first grade scholars!
  • “Good morning, painters! I look forward to seeing all the creative ways you’ll use watercolors in art class today.”
  • “All right, empathizers, let’s review what we’ll do in our groups so that everyone feels heard and respected.”
  • “So that’s our new math challenge. How will thinking like mathematicians help us solve it?”
  • “We faced an interesting issue at recess today. As problem-solvers, how could we go about finding solutions?

Enticing names and descriptions like these help children form visions of themselves achieving and behaving in the ways your words describe. This envisioning language also helps motivate children to do the hard and joyful work that will enable them to live up to those visions.

Here are some tips for choosing powerful, positive envisioning language to name and describe your students.

Believe your own words

To be truly motivating, the vision you help students form of themselves as learners must be a vision you believe in. Only then will your words carry the conviction that students must hear if they’re to accept that vision as accurate and achievable.

When you choose names and descriptions, you’ll want to make sure they reflect skills, capabilities, and behaviors you’re convinced are within students’ reach. For example, consider eight-year-olds. Developmentally, children at this age tend to be full of energy and enthusiasm, in an impatient hurry to try out their next big idea. If you address them as “calm students who are ready to work slowly and carefully,” your words are unlikely to ring true, to you or to them. On the other hand, ”lively students ready to use your energy to do some great learning” recognizes who they are in a positive way.

Name only positive visions

Sometimes, without thinking, we name a negative vision along with a positive one, like this: “I’m hoping for hard workers instead of lazy workers.” Once students hear a negative term such as “lazy workers,” they may have a hard time applying the positive term to themselves. Or they may resent our implied lack of faith in them and resist working toward the positive vision.

A simple, positive envisioning statement works much better: “I know that you can all work hard and learn a lot, and I’m here to help you do that.”

Be inclusive

Imagine a fifth grade teacher who shares a vision of gym class as “Boys and girls, skaters and jocks, all being friendly to each other.” The intention—to reassure students that everyone has an equal place in the school community—is positive, but the words reinforce the very divisions and stereotypes the teacher hopes to overcome.

Much more effective is a straightforward descriptive sentence, such as “In this class, we’ll all make sure everyone feels welcomed and included by everyone else.”

Add a little detail

Once you’ve gotten used to using positive names and descriptions, you might want to add a few details. For example, to a “Good morning, first grade scholars!” greeting, you might add words like these:

“I see that our classroom is full of students who are ready to learn. This year, I expect that all of you will find some schoolwork you’ll be able to do quite easily and some that will require hard work. But we’re all good thinkers, so we’re all going to stick with it and learn a lot!”

Describing what you mean by “good thinkers”—students who are ready to learn, who will persist even when things are hard—adds power to the vision by helping students see what they’ll be doing when they behave as good thinkers. “Yes,” they’ll likely repeat in their heads. “We are good thinkers. We can work hard and stick with it.” Now they’re indeed ready to work at their learning.

Choose respectful names

The way we address students may inadvertently undermine the message of confidence and respect we want to send them. Here are some names to think twice about, along with alternatives that express your belief in students’ growing competence and autonomy.

Avoid this...Why?Instead, Try...Why?
"Boys and girls," "Ladies and gentlemen"Other characteristics matter more than students' gender"First graders," "Everyone," "Class"Straightforward and descriptive; easy way to replace gender labels
"Ms. Petersen's Class"Emphasizes teacher as defining feature of the class; suggests that students belong to the teacher“Scientists,” “Readers,” Mathematicians,” “Geographers”Shift focus to students; imply that all are capable of and engaged in meaningful work; can be used with any content area
"Little Duckies," "Kiddies," "Peanuts," etc.Too-cute names can feel disrespectful to children and imply that they’re not capable learners“Problem-solvers,” “Team Thinkers,” “Capable Collaborators,” “Serious Scholars,” “Learning Lions”Work with any content area; reflect actions and mindsets that support learning; when used throughout the year, build a sense of class identity; students can help choose a name that fits the class personality

Start now

No matter when you begin using envisioning language, you’ll likely see positive changes in students’ relationship to you, each other, and their learning. Starting earlier in the year gives students maximum time to develop their vision of themselves as capable learners. Starting later lets you choose words that recognize specific accomplishments and strengths you’ve had time to observe in each of them. When it comes to using positive names and descriptions, any time is a good time to start!