Powerful Words

In 1993, after teaching for twenty years, I still loved my chosen profession, but I often felt frustrated. It seemed as though I spent an inordinate amount of time on classroom management and discipline. My approach at that time was basically authoritarian, and language was one of my primary tools. I gave the children necessary information about each day’s lessons and expected them to follow all directions without question. If students complied, I felt that I was doing my job. When they didn’t, I sometimes resorted to saying things like “We don’t need another clown in the room” or “You’re acting like a baby” or “Don’t do that again or you’ll stay in from recess.”

I didn’t like what was happening—the students were stressed rather than nurtured and I was unhappy. I knew something needed to change and wondered if that change could begin with my language.

This frustration coincided with two changes in my teaching life. First, a new principal came to our school. She supported new ideas, research, and professional development and encouraged us to take risks with our own teaching practice. Second, I became part of the Wheelock College Learning and Teaching Collaborative. For the first time in my teaching career I had an intern to mentor for a year. I wanted her to have a positive experience, which meant I had to model good teaching practices.

The intern’s supervisor shared articles and books with me, including Ruth Charney’s book Teaching Children to Care. I spent one whole summer reading this book; it was like a rebirth. Inspired by Charney’s book, I attended a Responsive Classroom I summer institute and then, the next summer, attended a Responsive Classroom II institute. In the intervening year, I began to use Responsive Classroom practices in my classroom.

My primary focus during this transitional period was on language, a key topic in these institutes and reading materials. I listened with new ears. I heard myself and my colleagues. I also heard the children. “You’re so stupid you can’t even do that math!” one child said to another. Or “That’s an ugly picture.” And echoing me, “If you do that again, you’ll be sorry.” I became aware of the critical role that words, voice tone, facial expressions, and body language play in creating an atmosphere of respect—or disrespect—in the classroom.

In the Responsive Classroom I institute, we talked about using language to encourage and empower students. Encouraging language reinforces appropriate behaviors by naming them specifically. For example, “I notice that everyone got ready safely and quietly for math today.” Empowering language gives children a chance to do what’s right by reminding them about appropriate behavior and redirecting them when they get off track. For example, instead of scolding Shawna, who has difficulty sitting still in Morning Meeting, I can remind her about this important behavior by saying, “Show me how you sit quietly in Morning Meeting, Shawna.” Or if the noise level in the classroom is rising, I can use an agreed on signal for quiet instead of shouting “Quiet down!”. These signals include raising my hand, flicking the lights off and on, clapping my hands, or beginning to recite a phrase such as “a hush came over the room” or a poem. Once the children are quiet, I can calmly redirect behavior by saying, “It’s time to use quiet voices now.”

Planning, practicing, reflecting, and self-correcting

I used my daily plan book to help make changes in my language. Each week I wrote down a new teacher language goal. For example, one week I wrote that I wanted to use the encouraging phrase “I notice” every time I saw appropriate behaviors, specifically identifying what I saw. Other encouraging phrases that I wrote in my plan book were “I hear . . .” and “I see . . .”

I also put key phrases up on the wall to help me remember the language I wanted to use. For example, I posted empowering phrases such as “Show me . . . ,” and “Remind me . . .” I involved the children in this process by telling them I was trying to learn a better way to talk to them and that the phrases on the wall were like notes to myself.

I encouraged the children to help me during this period of change. I said, “You can use these phrases with each other and remind me when I need to use them.” I also tape-recorded myself and reviewed the tapes, analyzing my tone and words and the children’s responses. In other words, I became proactive: I thought before I spoke, I practiced, reflected, and self-corrected.

The children mirrored the positive changes

As I became more comfortable with the new approach to language, I saw a positive change in the classroom. The children seemed more relaxed and, in a strange way, more innocent. They were empowered to accomplish their goals. Eventually I heard the children mirroring the positive changes in language. For example, before group work they would say, “Remember that we need to share the materials and work quietly.” There was less arguing. They were open and responsive to friends’ observations. They complimented each other using encouraging language such as “I’m glad that you asked me to play with you at recess today” and “You used great describing words in your story.” The classroom had a new serenity. I had more time to teach and the children were collaborators in the process. We were a team, a community of learners.
Gail Zimmerman has taught in the Boston public schools for thirty years, teaching mostly second and third grades. This year she began a new position as a literacy specialist at her school. For the past seven years, she has been a lead teacher and mentor to beginning teachers. She has used the Responsive Classroom approach for nine years and has been a Responsive Classroom trainer for eight years.

Encouragement: More powerful than praise

Probably the most challenging shift for many teachers is the shift from praising to encouraging. When I praise a child, I give a qualitative favorable judgment, for example, “good job,” “that’s beautiful,” “terrific work,” “good girl.” When I encourage a child, I name something specific about a child’s appropriate behavior or efforts. For example, “You were using kind words when you asked Nathaniel if you could share his markers.”

Although it might seem as though praising children can only be a good thing, there are possible problems:

  • Praise can make children dependent on the approval and judgments of others and undermine children’s ability to evaluate their own efforts.
  • Praise focuses on the product and sets up a goal of perfection.
  • Praise compares children to others and forces them to see their own worth in relation to the work of others.
  • Praise puts pressure on children—if I tell a child how good a job s/he has done, that child then might feel the need to always measure up to that standard in an effort to please me.
  • Dependence on praise can lead to avoidance of difficult work or fear of taking risks.

Encouragement, however, has many benefits:

  • Encouragement focuses on the process more than the product, helping children evaluate their own efforts towards their goals.
  • Encouragement creates a learning environment where it’s safe to take risks and make mistakes.
  • Encouragement accepts children as they are, which helps all children build self-confidence.
  • Encouragement allows children to define their own limits and reach beyond the limits of praise.

Does this mean that I never praise children? Of course not. There are times when I genuinely want to tell a child, “Good job.” But if praise is going to be effective it has to be genuine and not used as manipulation. When you praise a child, be sure to link the praise to something specific about a child’s actions or work. For example: “Good job, Benjamin. You stuck with your writing for twenty minutes today—that’s ten minutes longer than yesterday. How did it feel?”

One way to break the praise habit is to ask children questions about their work. This encourages them to assess their own process, shows your interest, and can open up interesting discussions with the child. So, the next time you’re tempted to give a verbal pat on the head, instead ask something like, “What do you think of . . . ?” “Tell me about. . . .” “How does this work?”

—Gail Zimmerman

Tags: Encouragement

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