Why The Words We Use Actually Matter

Why The Words We Use Actually Matter

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Have you ever stopped to think about the power of the words we use? When a child is told something often enough, they can begin to believe it.

In this episode of School Behaviour Secrets, we explore the hidden damage that words can do to our pupils and the importance of choosing our words carefully; separating the pupil from their behaviour.

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Show notes / transcription

Emma Shackleton  0:00  

If you tell somebody often enough that they are naughty or that they are silly, they quickly begin to shape their behaviours to live up to that reputation. They actually internalise that and when they're being told it often enough, they start to believe that they are the naughty one or the silly one.

Simon Currigan  0:19  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to this week's episode of school behaviour secrets. This show is the educational podcasting equivalent of a guinea pig. We're small, we're fluffy, we have way too much energy, but that's how we like it. We're squeaking for Britain and having the time of our lives. I'm joined today by Emma Shackleton. Emma, are you having the time of your life?

Emma Shackleton  1:20  

Yes, I am. And I'm also very grateful for the bleeping living the dream 

Simon Currigan  1:26  

Living the dream, before we get into the meat and potatoes of this week's episode, I'd like to ask you a quick question.

Emma Shackleton  1:31  

Simon, there can't be a single area of my life that you don't know about now.

Simon Currigan  1:36  

I've got a dossier. So the question is, according to a YouGov survey last year, a restaurant in Singapore has imposed a screaming child surcharge, a $10 fine for parents whose children make noise and disturb other customers. What percentage of people in the UK supported this idea? It's not how many people in Singapore supported it but how many people in the UK support this idea? 

Emma Shackleton  2:00  

Oh, crikey. It's a bit contentious, isn't it? I mean, I get it. We all want to eat our meal in peace. But most parents do as well. I'm sure. I don't think many people deliberately take their kids to a restaurant to disturb others, do they? So people in the UK who think this is a good idea? Well, I guess it depends on who was surveyed, but maybe 20% I don't know. What's the actual figure?

Simon Currigan  2:27  

Okay, so this is a shocker, you are low. 27% of UK citizens polled said they agreed with the policy 25% disagreed it really split the nation. And interestingly way more men supported this than women and it was most popular with over 65's. Make of that what you will.

Emma Shackleton  2:46  

Hang on 25% and 27%. Where's everybody else? 

Simon Currigan  2:50  

in the middle. 

Emma Shackleton  2:51  

Oh, okay.

Simon Currigan  2:52  

They didn't know or didn't care. 

Emma Shackleton  2:53  

Anyway, moving on. Why is this relevant to today's show?

Simon Currigan  2:57  

Right. Well, today's episode is all about the word choices we make as adults who work with children, and how those words really, really matter, and how we should be thinking about what impact our words are going to have on kids, and how there might be knock on effects, those vocabulary choices that we haven't even considered

Emma Shackleton  3:15  

I get it and screaming here is a word that is very polarising. It creates an emotional reaction in people.

Simon Currigan  3:24  

Yeah, and in this case, it's deliberate. But really, we're going to focus on how unintentional word choices lead to unexpected outcomes.

Emma Shackleton  3:31  

I see. Okay, just before we jump into this episode, how would you the listener fancy paying it forward with a small good deed? We rely pretty much on word of mouth recommendations. So if you're finding the school behaviour secrets podcast interesting and useful, and you know someone else who might like it to do them a favour by opening your podcast app and clicking the Share button. Thank you.

Simon Currigan  3:57  

So without further delay, let's close the door of our hotel bedroom excitedly. Turn on the Corby trouser press and steam out the creases of those tired old work slacks we call behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  4:10  

So let's kick off with the importance of separating children from their behaviour choices. We all know by now, I'm sure the extremely damaging effects of telling children that they are bad or naughty, for example, it's really important that we separate the behaviours that they are demonstrating from them as a person and there's a real danger of children living up to a label that's been reinforced by adults. So it's crucial that we split apart what the child has done from who they are. Have you ever noticed that some children become like the scapegoat in their classroom? You know what I mean by that every time anything goes wrong or anything bad happens. The first name on everyone's lips is that one child. I've actually even known this to happen when the boy who happened to be called Connor was away. So in a school, somebody had been into the boys toilets, and they'd been throwing wet toilet paper and sticking it up on the ceiling. It wasn't you was it Simon?

Simon Currigan  5:19  

No, I wasn't there. 

Emma Shackleton  5:21  

Not on this occasion, 

Simon Currigan  5:23  

I've never been in that toilet

Emma Shackleton  5:24  

So somebody had been misbehaving in the boys toilets. And when the teacher talked to the class about it, lots of the children were absolutely certain that it must have been Connor who done it until the teacher pointed out that actually, Connor wasn't even in school that day, he was away poorly. Now, I see this quite often in classrooms where a particular child's name is maybe overused by the adults, you know, when they keep on saying that child's name over and over again, everybody else in the class, keep on hearing that child's name, maybe in a negative context. And so they begin to associate all the bad things that happen in the classroom with that child. That's certainly what had happened in Connors case. The additional danger then is that this reinforces how other children see the child. So in that classroom, all the children thought that Connor was the naughty boy. And people tend to live up to their reputations. If you tell somebody often enough that they are naughty, or that they are silly, they quickly begin to shape their behaviours to live up to that reputation, they actually internalise that, and when they're being told it often enough, they start to believe that they are the naughty one or the silly one.

Simon Currigan  6:45  

Do you know this reminds me actually of a story in the book Thinking Fast Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahneman. And he looks at cognitive biases that we have and how when we given a piece of information, so the children in that classroom are given the information. Connor is a naughty boy when they're thinking about whether that's true or false or not. Actually, it's how easy that information is to recall. That's a link to how true you feel it is rather than there being sort of any natural veracity behind it if you've heard Connor is naughty Connor is naughty Connor is naughty Connor is naughty, over and over and over. And when you think about Connor, that fact just pops into your mind, then you will feel it's true, even if the evidence is to the contrary. So that repetition is actually really dangerous.

Emma Shackleton  7:28  

So it's just because of the ease of recall, because it's springs to your mind quickly, then you believe that it must be true because it came straight away without any effort or any barrier.

Simon Currigan  7:37  

I think that's the basis on which a lot of advertising works. That repetition. If you keep hearing the same message over and over on the telly, you know, think in the 20s, Guinness had a slogan that Guinness is good for you. I think if you heard that over and over and over again, this might be many things. It can offer you many, many qualities on a night out. But perhaps suggesting that it's good for you might not be today might hold up. But that repetition that hitting the same nail over and over and over that ease of recall, makes it feel true even when it's not necessarily true.

Emma Shackleton  8:05  

Yeah, that's interesting, isn't it. And this is an especially important concept for us to consider when we're working with children that might have been affected by trauma. So they might have already picked up a very wounding early message, that they are bad that they are unwanted or that they are unlovable. So for example, say you're correcting a mistake, most children would be fine if you ask them to go back, take their book back to their table and make a correction or edit their work, for example. But for children with trauma, any criticism of their work, or being sent back to improve something will be seen as more evidence that they must be a bad person, and maybe strongly resisted by those children. So you're going to get a big emotional reaction to what you perceive to be a small thing, but to them was actually a big deal.

Simon Currigan  8:58  

Yeah, we have to be so careful about the word choices you make, especially when we're working with kids with trauma because we can unintentionally trigger those really strong emotions. And also, it's really interesting about the messages that we give children about these labels, especially when we're thinking about gender stereotypes and cultural stereotypes. It can become a self fulfilling prophecy, it can change the way the child views themselves as a learner. And there's been some really interesting studies done based on this. So if you take a group of girls, and you talk to them about how women aren't typically expected to do very well with maths and they don't go on to become engineers, and really, they're more suited for caring professions, and they tend to do better with written things and tend to be better at reading but not working with numbers, and then you put them into a test. What they will tend to do is because you have reminded them of that stereotype, they will then tend to underperform on the test. Whereas if you take the same group of girls and you talk to them about how well women are doing with maths in The modern world, that the number of engineers and computer programmers is on the rise and how the world really needs women who are fluent and confident with number, give them exactly the same test, then you'll see those scores improve. And those kinds of studies have been carried out on all sorts of racial stereotypes, gender, stereotypes, and more. So we really need to be careful of what kind of stereotypes are reinforcing another example of using language carefully, which I really like is from Carol Dweck. And we're gonna mention Carol Dweck as well later in this episode, but it's the power of the word yet, if we have to say to a child, you know, you haven't got the work, right. You know, if we've got a child, they're sitting there with trauma, and they're seeing that correction, that constructive criticism, as you know, yet more evidence that they're a bad person who doesn't deserve love, they're going to get this huge emotional reaction to that. Or even if you're working with a child who's just sensitive to criticism, which has low self esteem, and finds it difficult to accept that kind of negative input, then putting the word yet on the end, can be a really powerful pivot. So who might say you haven't got this problem, right. That's the negative. If we say you haven't got that problem, right, Yet, what we are doing is leaving the door open to development and improvement in the future, we might say, you kick that ball really hard, but you missed the goal. While that's negative, and it is kind of sending the value judgement that you didn't do something right, and that perhaps your potential in this capacity is kind of limited. If we say to a child, well, you kick the ball, and you haven't scored the goal yet. But with more practice, you're going to get there, it changes the way both adults and children look at their learning experiences, it would do the children to try hard things, and fail and learn from that failure. But that only works if you believe in the power of yet. So just putting the word yet on a piece of constructive criticism can change how it's viewed by the child. And it can send different messages about what we as the adult expect from the child or believe the child is capable of.

I really love that I've used that a lot with children. And you can see that growth mindset. It's taught in a lot of schools now. And you can really see how children do respond to that. And don't get me wrong. In this episode, we're not talking about tiptoeing around or walking on eggshells around children or never delivering hard messages. Because we do need to do that as educators, what we're talking about is being emotionally intelligent about the way that we do that, and taking into account the person who's hearing that feedback, and how that might affect them. And that makes us clever and strategic, it benefits the child. But it also benefits us because of course, if we can avoid triggering a big negative emotional reaction in a child, why would we not want to do that. So it's about being very considerate about the words that we use, and the way that we say those words, so that the child always feels like even when we're delivering a harsh message, we are on their side. And we're coming from a place of love and care and support. Rather than just being mean or nasty, or being a baddie towards them. 

You can only do that if you're being intentional about what you do and the choices you make.

Emma Shackleton  13:21  

Absolutely, absolutely. So criticism or negative feedback of any kind really needs to be balanced with praise and recognition. Otherwise, it can feel like for the child, that they are not capable, or that their efforts or they themselves are not good enough. And of course, that's going to diminish their confidence. And that will decrease their motivation to try hard things or to do their best. So we've talked about this many times, humans will inherently try to avoid hard stuff, we like to do things that are easy. We like to do things that are familiar, we like to do things that are safe, because it takes a lot more energy and efforts and brain power and courage to do hard stuff. But doing hard stuff is the way that we grow. So if we want children to attempt difficult things, we've got to be supportive. So we've got to give that feedback but in a constructive and emotionally intelligent way, rather than chipping away at their confidence, and making them feel like giving up. It's all about building the child's resilience rather than breaking them down and making them feel like they can't do it or they don't even want to attempt it. We've also got to be quite careful with the balance of praise. And we've got to make sure that we are genuine with our praise. So what we mustn't do is fall into the trap of making a huge big fanfare for every little thing that they do. Because one thing is the adults not going to keep that up. They're going to be inconsistent, but the other is kids can sniff out false praise a mile off. And all that does is tell them that the adult isn't genuine and that they're not to be trusted, we need to get into a habit of just routinely noticing the good stuff, and commenting on good stuff. So for example, dropping out little comments, like, I like the way that you did that. Or I noticed that you were really concentrating on that that's as much as it needs to be a little bit of acknowledgement and recognition for a skill that they are showing. If a student feels that they're constantly being judged or criticised, they're going to be a lot less willing to take part. And they're also not going to trust you enough to ask you for help when they get stuck. So then they're going to be learning less, and they're going to be engaging less is a massive turnoff. If you feel like whatever you do, you're just gonna get criticised. And after a while most of us would just think sod this and give up trying.

Simon Currigan  16:00  

So let's have a think now. And this sounds counterintuitive. But we also have to be really careful about what we do praise and what we do give recognition to in the classroom and in our schools. Because when we want to encourage positive behaviour, well, what are we doing? Let's think about quickly, what makes good praise? Is it that the child feels good about themselves for engaging in a certain behaviour, like holding a door open? Well, yeah, I mean, that's nice. But I think as a professional who's working with children, we can aim higher than that. Okay, so I'm not against children feeling good about good behaviours. And obviously, that's a good side effect of giving praise. But let's try and take praise to the next level. Okay, so there are a couple of elements that make effective praise. And the first is that the child understood it, and they knew it has been directed at them. So that's the basic if the child doesn't realise you're talking about them, and the child doesn't recognise what behaviour you are praising, then the price is going to be ineffective. So a quick example here would be Danny, you're a good boy. So Danny might feel good at receiving that praise. But he doesn't know what he was doing that made him good. If you say, Danny, thanks for holding open the door, that's great. Now Danny gets that sort of hit of dopamine, he feels good about holding open the door. But he also knows what he was doing. So he can repeat it in the future. When we do it in that way. It reinforces that very specific behaviour. So now, when Danny sees us in the corridor tomorrow, he knows that if he wants some praise and recognition, holding open the door is something that's worked for him in the past. But I would go even further than now I would say something that makes really high quality praise is you are praising in a way that other children who are nearby can hear the praise, and copy that desired behaviour. So that positive behaviour can grow and spread. And that was a good example there. If Danny's holding open the door, and we walk past and I say that's good, good boy, Danny, the other children walking paths might not necessarily pick up on what Danny was doing. If we say to Danny, thanks for holding open the door, that's really helpful. Now the other children can think wow, so it's giving out praise for people holding open doors, and they can run down the corridor for me and hold open the next door, which you know, might create its own set of problems. But that price has been clear, it's been specific. And now it can grow and spread from child to child to child. So I'm not against making children feel good about doing the right thing. But if we're specific, and we do it in the right way, then actually, those behaviours can grow and spread amongst the children as a whole and make lots of children feel good about doing the right thing.

Emma Shackleton  18:29  

The sort of praising the individual and setting up the rest of the children to be successful at the same time through one simple well constructed, well thought out sentence. 

Simon Currigan  18:39  


Emma Shackleton  18:40  

So we've got to remember as well, that praise should be proportional. So a good example might be, let's use an example of Billy who was struggling with a piece of work, but he's stuck at it even when it was hard. So I could say, Billy, I really liked the way that you stuck at that task, even when you were finding it tricky. So I'm drawing attention to exactly the quality that I liked, and that I want to reinforce. But it's proportional. So I'm pleased with him. I'm warm towards him. And I'm giving him some positive feedback about that. Now, I could also go completely overboard and be disproportionate so Billy's put in a little bit of effort, but I've gone absolutely over the top and made it sound like he's just, you know, performed CPR in the classroom and save somebody's life. So I could say wow, Billy, you're amazing. What a superstar. You've already written your name. That's incredible. Give yourself 100 House points. Woohoo, everybody. Let's give Billy a clap. Now. That's actually not going to work for Billy. It's very embarrassing for a start. And Billy can see right through that writing his name wasn't difficult for him. He can do it. He does it day in day out. There is no need for me to go massively over the top like that. There's no need for me to go. So hyperbole, it's just embarrassing and cringy. And it makes Billy probably think I've lost my marbles to be quite honest. It's not going to create that security and that trusting relationship between us he's probably going to be a little bit wary to be honest.

Simon Currigan  20:16  

He might think you're being sarcastic.

Emma Shackleton  20:18  

Absolutely, absolutely. And sometimes, yeah, that's how it can be perceived. And sometimes other children think that you're being sarcastic too. So they might start laughing. But at Billy, you know, not laughing with Billy. So yeah, definitely. Be calm, be specific, be clear, be warm and be proportionate about what it is that you're praising.

Simon Currigan  20:41  

Just to be clear, then when I did that podcast art the other week and you said it was the most amazing podcast art I'd ever seen the way I'd done the green going into the blue the way it was graduated. It was absolutely that was all genuine. Yeah, that would that wasn't..? 

Emma Shackleton  20:52  

Completely genuine, I think you're an absolute superstar Simon. So a piece of good praise, then good praise structure I like is start with the child's name. Because not every child recognises that you are speaking to them and they're not queued in. So start with their name, a little pause to give them a chance to cue in be very specific, as Simon said. So we'd Pete what it is that you like that they're doing? And then a little bit of acknowledgement on the end. So Billy, I like the way that you really stuck at that task, even when it was hard. Thank you all well done, or good job.

Simon Currigan  21:27  

We're going to circle back now to Carol Dweck, because her work also tells us about the sort of activities that we should be praising, and the sort of praise that we should avoid. So to take the example of Billy there, maybe Billy is done really well reading his book or something. And you say to him, Well done, Billy, you read that book perfectly. Now that is praising outcomes. So a child's on a piece of work. So and we're looking at the outcome, and we said the outcome was correct, you've done well, that is the traditional sort of praise that you'll see in a classroom. Carol Dweck found problems with that kind of praise. And what she found was we are better off praising the effort involved, you tried really hard to read all of the words in that book than praising the outcome. And I just want to spend some time thinking about why that might be. And why praising good work and good outcomes might actually sort of counter intuitively result in a child taking fewer risks with their learning, and actually kind of hemming them in in terms of their progress in school. So let's imagine we've got a child who has read a book in the book corner to the teacher, and got praise for reading every word correctly. Now, that child may then internalise that as thinking, well, the adults only recognise me. And the only value me when I get everything right when I produce a real quality work, and then then might look at a book in the book corner that's a little bit harder. At the back of their mind, there might be the thought that if they try something hard, and they don't get it completely correct, and they start making mistakes, and they don't do as well as they did with the easier book, then the adults might stop valuing them, the adult might look at them and think, Oh, you're not as good as I thought you were. Whereas if we praise belief or trying hard, it doesn't matter if he makes mistakes. And it doesn't matter whether he gets the book completely correct. What we are doing is recognising and encouraging the act of learning and reading itself. We're recognising him engaging in that activity. And when Billy looks at a book, he thinks, Well, when I sit down and read a book, I get recognition and encouragement from the adult. It's not about whether I get it all right. It's about whether I engage with the task. And Carol Dweck says research has shown that this is true. And it's been replicated in study after study after study after study.

Emma Shackleton  23:42  

So another famous Carol Dweck study is where children were split into two groups, they were both given exactly the same test and Group A was praised for how well they did on the test, while Group B was praised for the effort that they put into the test. So this reinforces what Simon was saying they're at a later date, they were given a test that was much harder and much longer. And guess what the children in Group A actually did worse, and gave up more quickly than the children in Group B, who also reported actually enjoying the test more. So those children who were only praised on their achievements actually gave up more quickly and didn't do so well. But the children who previously been praised for their effort, actually enjoyed trying hard and putting more effort in so that's really backing up what you were talking about there. Simon,

Simon Currigan  24:40  

it reminds me a few years ago, there was a pre COVID There was a really hard year six SATs reading paper and lots of schools were talking about how difficult it was to access. And you could see there the children that had been encouraged to continue with a task even though they found it difficult. And the kids who just looked at that paper and thought if I'm not going to get the reward for the achievement, then there's no point in digging in and working anyway, in a lot of those kids were kind of given up very quickly. Whereas the kids who have been sort of encouraged to engage with the task and were rewarded for the trying and the effort, they were much more likely to persist with it. So it does have effects in the you know, in the real world, we have got to be careful what we're saying to kids, so we don't have these unintentional consequences.

Emma Shackleton  25:19  

I know I used to use perfect a lot. I used to give that as part of my praise. I used to say, Well done, you did that perfectly, or well done. That's perfect. And then I realised that actually, perfectionism wasn't a quality that I wanted to instil and want it to grow because it's easy to fail. It's easy to feel let down when the next thing that you do isn't perfect. So after I learned about Carol Dweck, research, I stopped using perfect because I don't want children to think that it's only worth doing something if they can produce it perfectly, because that really limits what they're going to have a go at.

Simon Currigan  25:53  

I actually saw this with one of my own kids these to have one of these little portable video games from her about three or four. And they had to solve mazes on on a railway track and one of my children, they used to love doing new mazes together, and we would solve it together. But they would only play mazes that they'd completed with me in the past. And when we look back, we realised as parents Oh, yeah, we've been saying, well done. You've got it, right, you've got there. We weren't sort of talking about the process and showing that we value the process of experimentation itself.

Emma Shackleton  26:21  

Yeah, having a go having a go rather than getting it right. And that brings us to the end of today's episode. So if you work with children who present tricky behaviours in the classroom, and you're not sure why they're acting that way, we've got a download that can help.

Simon Currigan  26:36  

It's called the SEND handbook, and it will help you link behaviours you're seeing in the classroom to possible causes, like autism, trauma or ADHD.

Emma Shackleton  26:44  

And of course, the idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis because we're not qualified to do that, that requires a medical professional. But if we can link behaviours to possible causes quickly, it means that we can get the right help and get early intervention strategies in place.

Simon Currigan  27:01  

Plus, the new version of the guide contains fact sheets for PDA, ODD, developmental language delay, and others.

Emma Shackleton  27:07  

It's a free download. So grab your copy today, all you've got to do is go over to our website, www.beaconschoolsupport.co.uk  click on the free resources tab near the top, and we'll also put a link in the episode description.

Simon Currigan  27:23  

And if you've enjoyed today's podcast, then why not subscribe so you never miss another episode. There's no charge. It's all completely free. All you got to do is open up your podcast app, press the subscribe button and your app will automatically download each and every episode as it's released. And to celebrate subscribing. Why not howl into the wind, harness the power of the pack and release yourself some real wolf energy, looking good lupine you

Emma Shackleton  27:49  

We both hope you have a brilliant week and I look forward to seeing you next time on school behaviour. Bye for now. 

Simon Currigan  27:55  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)