“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” ― Peggy O'Mara
I came across the quote above many years ago and took it to heart with my own child-rearing practices and the words I choose for my students. However, realizing the impact of everything we say, even as an off-hand remark, is something everyone can improve upon. Since my school is closed right now, I spoke with my husband about this important concept and, to my surprise, he was not as aware as I thought, on this topic. He knew I practiced a lot of positive reinforcement but he did not realize the extent of my intentionality with regards to what I say to our children. For example, he is quick to say "you are messy" or "you are lazy" to our children as a way to try to get them to clean up or do chores. I believe that the choice-words concept tells us to be careful in our use of these kinds of labels because the child may start to identify as a messy or lazy person just from being told they are, when, in actuality, they are just going through a phase most children go through. A more appropriate thing to say is "You must feel so proud when your room is clean because it reflects the organized person that you are. It looks like it needs some of your magic. Do you want me to help you get started?" I use that type of approach all the time and get much better results with the kids. We had an intentional conversation about this thanks to this assignment and he had an "aha" moment when he realized that the way he was phrasing things with the kids could have something to do with why the kids are unmotivated by his approach and words.
Along with their parents, teachers and school leaders play a huge role in building student's identity too. Connected to this is their sense of agency. The more we use words that build a child's identity as someone that has the ability to act upon their world and life in a positive way and nurture their proactivity, the more they live up to that expectation. Children internalize the words of the adults in their lives and if we support positive identity with our words and curriculum, then their ability to succeed, grow from mistakes and learn increases.
As a school leader, I would make using choice words a more conscious school wide practice, by having trainings and workshops that teach every adult in the school community the importance of choosing wise words. This includes parent volunteers and anyone that interacts with the students. We can ask parent volunteers, chaperones and others who interact with the students to watch a 5-10 minute video to introduce them to the school's wise-words approach. Staff would become accountable for their words by really listening to the students when they are misbehaving. If sent to the office, the principal or advisor should ask them what what happened that made them upset since it may have been something the teacher said to them without realizing it was a trigger. I would also make sure there are student surveys at least 4 times per year to give anonymous feedback on their teacher, which a question asking what they like the most that their teacher has said to them and what is something they did not like the teacher saying. And the choice-words practice needs to happen between the staff and adults too. If we are all on the same page with regards to adopting the practice of choice words, then we should have a policy for someone to feel comfortable communicating when something someone said was hurtful or counter to the "choice-words" ideal.
I can make the use of choice words a more conscious and accountable personal practice by starting in my own home and practicing this habit. This is something I have been working on for years, but there is always room for improvement and the need to stay extra vigilant to not fall into old patterns taught to us by our parents. My current employment is not in a school. However, I am the part time marketing manager for a health clinic and have the ability to incorporate this concept into my current workplace. Employee satisfaction is directly correlated with what an employee thinks their boss thinks of them and so the more I can give genuine reinforcement to the good work they are doing, the more motivated they may become, which, in turn, will help increase the quality of patient care. I plan to take this skill with me anywhere I work, whether it is with adults or children.
5 things I am willing to do this semester that will make your school choose words wisely is a tough one because my school is currently not open. However, I can do the following. I have included things I can do in my personal life and at my marketing job too:
1 - Reach out to the alumni of my programs with a short video message letting them know how much I miss them and sharing my high opinion of them - highlighting their strengths and reinforcing their positive identity. Many of my students were with me from the age of 3 months old to 5 years old, giving me a unique opportunity to be an influencer in their lives by showering them with honest positive messages about themselves.
2 - Continue to coach my husband on the power of words so he can help build a positive self-image and agency in our children. Also, teach my 21 year old son, who still lives with us, about the power of the words he says to his little brother and sister.
3 - Intentionally use choice words in all my interactions with colleagues and patients at the clinic where I work.
4 - As part of the management team of the clinic, I can introduce or review this concept with the rest of the management team and owners of the company and discuss adding it to the management handbook for future managers to adopt.
5 - I believe that repetition is key with children, so I will make small posters of each family member to hang on a wall in our home. In the center will be a photo of the family member and around the photo will be positive attributes I genuinely consider them to possess and those they are developing. This will include words such as "loving," "generous," "hard-working," "smart," "organized," "decisive," "trend-setter," and so forth.