Recently, I attended a fitness class that was a bit out of my comfort zone. Okay, a lot out of my zone. It’s very trendy, with a reputation for being very tough, and is well-attended by regulars. Within minutes, the instructor had her eye on me, The Newbie.  Fortunately, I laugh easily at myself, especially while working out,. However, I am more accustomed to the “listen to your body” and “work right up to the edge of what your are comfortable doing” philosophy than this strict, authoritarian workout. I began to wonder if other people noticed how often she whisked past me and “adjusted” how I was moving, punctuated with terse directions and stern looks.  Then I  noticed in the mirror I was wearing my scowly face. I looked away at the clock. Thank goodness, 34 minutes past the hour. If I was lucky, a 7 minute cool down meant only 17 minutes left of this torture session.  Wasn’t I just enjoying myself?  Clearly, I needed help, but it didn’t feel like I was getting it.

But then, “Oh, that’s IT, Lisa! You’ve GOT IT on this side! It just takes some getting used to…”

“Me? Got it?” I exhaled and pressed on, feeling less like the giant elephant in the room, even if I was seemingly unable to command my body into the correct bend with any semblance of correct form.  Nothing like a bit of role-reversal to make you take a critical look at the words you use with students. It also made me hum “Help!” as I wobbled through the second half of the class!

Granted, this teacher’s job was to push us, not necessarily to build safe and caring community of learners (thought she obviously had and I was just a bit slow on to catch on).  But that  is our job in classrooms – to establish a safe learning environment where children feel known, recognized, and valued so they take academic and social risks.  Teachers need to be diligent  about the words we choose, and how they are perceived. Even when we think we do a good job with our choice of words, we’re all human and we’re all capable of choosing our words with a bit more precision and care.

No matter if our interactions with kids are in a classroom, a temporary relationship (like summer camp) or as parents. Our words, the tone, and our nonverbal language speak volumes. But how easy it is to forget their power.  The repetitive corrections I heard, though well-intentioned, gave me pause to reflect and recalibrate my choice of words with children.

Responsive Classroom outlines three types of teacher language, each with its own purpose and each adaptable to the age and situation of children. Here’s a quick overview:

Reinforcing language is effective when adults notice a child’s effort at self-discipline or skills.

Reminding language – is used proactively or just as inappropriate behavior emerges.

Redirecting language – is used when children are clearly off track and need your help to regain self-control.

While working with at-risk youth at a community arts camp,  I was struck by how effective reinforcing and reminding language can be.  Even with kids for whom this type of dialogue, environment and peers were new, a few simple words executed in a positive tone and paired with sincere acknowledgment for an individual’s strengths or efforts, produced a smile. Then small talk. Then greater effort. And soon, we were building relationships and a community. More than fifty kids came together to work with artists-in-residence, to paint, dance, drum, and sing for one week this summer.  Each session was full of affirmation, laughter, clearly articulated boundaries and logical consequences.  Conversations revealed a consistent use of this type of language, without any formal training, but with positive results and a remarkable ability to see and inspire the best in children.

Simple redirection such as, “show me where your name tag needs to be” delivers compliance with the rule about respecting each other and using first names.

Redirection when behavior goes off course.

Reminding a student to maintain eye contact when a classmate shares  allows teen age boys to more fully participate in a dance class, rather than engaging in side conversations.

Reminders help children get back on track.

Affirming a child’s choice to begin painting and drawing on reflections from a meditation session comes from the use of reinforcing language such as “I see you chose words from the list we made” or “I see you’re working carefully to sketch before you paint.”  Each of these brief statements help maintain a feeling of mutual respect, without judgment or personal criticism.

Reinforcing words facilitate the creation of an affirmation mirror.

At home with teens, it’s often more effective to stick with  reminding and  redirecting language.  Savvy teens, who are working toward individualization, often don’t see the value in reinforcing language.  Nonetheless, they need to hear that we see them doing what’s expected and their steps forward, even if it’s acknowledged with a sarcastic remark or sheepish grin.   “Tell me again what your plan is for cutting the grass this week?” puts the onus on them to set the timetable, but still hold them accountable for a job they are responsible for completing.  A simple, “stop and come back to talk when you can use a calm tone of voice” is the redirecting language that can quell an emotional outburst (often in conjunction with some time alone for both!).

There are countless applications of reinforcing, reminding and redirecting language in the classroom.  The differences can be subtle and need practice to hone. This Youtube video gives an overview or check out the Responsive Classroom website for more resources and suggestions.

What are some ways you can help build a child’s confidence and self-discipline by the language you choose to use?

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