How we talk about kids matters. Here’s why.
I’ve been teaching since 2001, and I’ve been a parent for about ten years. Add to that the fact that I’ve been immersed in the social media driven world of educational blogging for close to five years. Each “hat” I wear means I come into contact with a wide variety of parents and educators, in a wide variety of ways.
99.99% of the time, this is a positive experience. I get to participate in many conversations about teaching and parenting, listening to different perspectives than my own. The parents and teachers I interact with on a weekly basis amaze me sometimes. I definitely feel blessed to hear and read the thoughts of people who are different than I am, but just as invested in teaching and raising kids.
Sometimes, though, I run across negative trends that I just cannot agree with. I’m usually all for agreeing to disagree on many topics. But there are some where I won’t bend. Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed such a topic crop up multiple times. An article about “bad kids”, teachers calling students “bad”, etc. After the third time running across this, I am done. As an early childhood educator and a parent, I just don’t think this should be how we talk about kids.
To some, getting riled up about children being labeled “bad” might lead to eye-rolling. But I’m betting I’m not the only one who is irked by this. Even if you think I’m overreacting, I hope you’ll take a few moments to read what I have to say.
Because the bottom line is what we say about kids matters. Here’s why, from an educator’s standpoint:
How we talk about kids shapes how they think of themselves.
If a child hears you calling him “bad”, that one little word may stick with him for years. He may decide that, since he’s “bad” anyway, why should he worry about making kind and good choices. Why should he work hard to make positive changes when the adults around him have already set him in the “bad kid” pile?
He might continually berate himself for the little mistakes he makes throughout the day, rather than focusing on how those mistakes help him grow and learn. This could severely impact his self-esteem and growth for years to come.
Other teachers will make assumptions about children based on what we say.
Saying, “She’s just a bad kid.” in a staff meeting, venting online to other teachers, or in an off-hand comment to a friend can have repercussions beyond yourself.
If your comment was overheard by someone who’s likely to gossip, word could quickly spread about this “bad kid”.
If the comment is made to a teacher in the grade above yours, the child will already have an informal label. She could walk into her classroom the following year to be met with a teacher who’s already making assumptions about her.
Most of the educators I know try their hardest not to make these assumptions, but teachers are only human and it happens sometimes.
How we talk about kids shapes how WE think about them.
Refer to a child as “bad” often enough, and that’s how you will always think of her. That label, even if it’s only in your own head, will have a massive impact.
If a child is thought of as being beyond help, who will help her? Less effort will go into reaching out to her, into finding out what is causing her troubling behaviors, into loving and caring for her. It’s as if a label of “bad” means she’s unteachable and not worth the effort.
I don’t know about you, but I never ever want to think about a child like that. Not my own child, not my child’s peers, and not my students.
How we talk about kids affects how their peers see them.
Kids pick up on things. They are far more observant than they’re given credit for sometimes! If the words, “That kid is just a bad seed,” are uttered near a child, that child may very well hear the comment. And you can bet it will affect how he treats the person being spoken of.
He might go home and tell his parents about the “bad” kid in his class, which could lead to assumptions and gossip in the community. The “bad” child might get avoided, even though friendship could help. He might start calling the other child names, even if understanding and empathy would be more helpful to the child being labeled “bad”.
“Bad” kids receive less help.
As I mentioned above, the label can easily stick with a child for years and years. If a child is labeled as “naughty”, “bad”, or “beyond help” . . . it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s as if he’s not worth the energy to help because there’s something innately wrong with him. Therefore, less energy is expended to help him. He’s labeled as a “behavior problem” without anyone looking into the root cause of those behavior concerns.
Every child, no matter how difficult he is to teach or work with, is worth it. Every “bad” behavior is a child’s cry for help. It’s our job, as adults (be it parents, teachers, or other caregivers) to puzzle out how to meet his needs.
Throwing a label of “bad” onto him and walking away is not what the child needs. He needs us, fighting for him and working tirelessly to make sure he gets the help he needs.
Will it be easy? Of course not.
Will it be worth it? Most definitely.
So please take a moment. Take a step back. Before you cry out, “She’s just a bad student! She’s just a bad kid!”, stop and reconsider your words. She is a person with feelings and needs. How we speak to her, and about her, matters. The bottom line is how we talk about kids matters.
Again, I feel the need to reiterate that I don’t see this happen often. The teachers I know personally strive not to label children negatively like this. However, even if it’s seen infrequently . . . it’s still happening. Having a conversation about it can help ensure it happens less and less.
Ideas for reframing how we talk about kids
Having conversations about hard topics with fellow educators can enact change. Changing up what we do can help, too. Here are some ideas for changing how we think and talk about “bad kids”:
- Stop and think, “How can I help this child?”
- Remember that troubling behaviors often indicate a need on the part of the child.
- Look at the kiddo and remember he’s a person too. He’s going to have bad days, just like you and I.
- Grab a colleague to help you make a change. An accountability buddy, if you will.
- Observe and make notes about the positive things you see the child do, as well as the positive things you know about the child.
- Make a point to say at least one kind comment to the child every day. Be the example.
- Remind yourself that a child’s behavior is one part of that child. His behavior is not who he is.
- Take a deep breath.
- Take care of yourself! Teaching and caring for children can take a lot out of a person. This, in turn, can lead to irritability and a loss of patience and understanding.
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