Classroom Culture: Language

Language is the most powerful tool you have to create a caring classroom culture. What you say – and how you say it – has an enormous effect on children’s emotions, learning, and sense of self.

The words you use can make children feel safe or threatened, encouraged or disengaged, capable or helpless. Use words intentionally to foster a positive culture through your daily interactions with children.

Words like “we,” “us,” and “our” invite children into the community of learning and send the message, “We are all in this together.” Empowering language makes children feel valued and successful. Encouraging words validate their contributions, help them accept mistakes as part of learning, and demonstrate belief in their growth. Respectful language impacts children’s confidence, their feelings about school, their ideas about classmates, and their willingness to participate in the life of the classroom.

Model how you want children to speak to you and to each other. Children will pick up on your words and tone, so make sure it is positive and encouraging. Explicitly teach children how to start conversations, discuss ideas, ask for help, and disagree politely. These important skills will help them interact with others in the classroom and in the world.

Characteristics of Effective Teacher and Child Language

Effective language is empowering, respectful, consistent, and encouraging. When you model effective language you add to a caring classroom culture and teach children the skills they need to make friends and interact in the world. Here are some characteristics of effective language:

Empowering

Empower children by giving them opportunities to participate and cooperate. Let children know you believe they are capable and that their knowledge, ideas, and discoveries are valuable and important.

Teacher Language Examples Child Language Examples
“I remember when you read that book last time. I bet you can use the same strategies again.” “We did so well with our time moving from our desks to the rug. Can we try for a class record today?”
“Show what you will do when you want a turn to talk.” “Can you help remind us how to put a book back in the appropriate basket?”

Clear and Firm

Be clear and firm but not threatening. Be clear and honest about what you want children to do. Firm does not mean threatening. A student should never feel they need to exhibit a behavior out of fear. Tone is important here. It should be matter-of-fact and respectful.

Teacher Language Examples Child Language Examples
“I see many supplies being gathered. We’ll begin when everyone is ready.” “Friends, I need everyone to stop and listen right now.”
“Please hang up your coat and sit in your chair.” “I would like a turn now.”
  “[Friend’s name], it’s time to do our assignment now.”

Trusting and Respectful

Show faith in a child’s ability and possibilities for growth. Treat others the way you would like to be treated. The language we use with our children should be the language we hope that someone would use with us.

Teacher Language Examples Child Language Examples
“Tell me a way that you would like me to help.” “I feel hurt that you didn’t want to sit next to me on the rug.”
“I notice that all backpacks and coats are in the cubby area. What else can we do to make the area even cleaner?” “Who can help me find a safe way to hold the thermometer?”

Encouraging and Positive

Focus on, and help students to notice what is going well and/or partially correct. Keep it objective and nonjudgmental. Use “I notice…” instead of “I like…” Using positive language inspires and motivates students by conveying your belief in their intentions and ability to be successful.

Teacher Language Examples Child Language Examples
“I noticed that you made a wise choice this morning when you knew just where to go when you needed a new piece of paper.” “I saw [Name] lend a pencil to [Name] when he needed one.”
“You showed kindness when you asked [Name] to join your game.” “You took care of me when I needed help figuring out a hard word.”

Process Oriented

Recognizing behaviors that are partially correct and/or behaviors that show improvement or effort can be a launching pad for new learning.

“The most important piece is to confirm what has been successful (so it will be repeated) and simultaneously assert the learner’s competence so she will have the confidence to consider new learning.” - Peter Johnston, Choice Words

Teacher Language Examples Child Language Examples
“I noticed that you were so careful with your chair and the way you walked and sat down on the rug. You have been working so hard! Show me you remember the last step.” “My turn and talk partner worked hard trying to answer our question today.”
“I noticed a lot of listening and pausing to think before talking.” “Thank you for helping me when I was stuck on a word.”

Specific and Consistent

Use language that is consistent and explicit. Too many words can confuse and overwhelm children. Be specific about you want children to do. Define abstract terms like “responsible” or “respectful” by naming what behavior looks like. Let students know what you WOULD LIKE them to do, not what you do not want them to do.

Teacher Language Examples Child Language Examples
“I see you remembered to put your book back in the exact basket where you found it. You are taking such great care of our materials.” “Thank you [Name] for pushing my chair in for me when I forgot.”
“Be responsible: put the book back in the bin you found it in.” “We all helped each other with cleanup and we finished faster.”

Planned and Reflected Upon

Knowing and using the most effective language takes thought, practice, reflection, and rehearsal. It shows that you are striving to be proactive rather than reactive to a student’s behavior.

Teacher Language Examples Child Language Examples
“Let’s begin our Class Meeting reflecting on the language we will use with each other when we work in groups this afternoon.” “Can you ask me to help you in a kind and friendly way?”
“I noticed friends giving supportive clues to each other. What are some other things you noticed that made this activity go well?” “We took turns sharing out today.”

Anchor Chart - Take Care of Others

Guidelines for Effective Language

  • Give children information about what they should do instead of telling them what they shouldn’t do.
  • Use words that are child-friendly and developmentally appropriate.
  • Reflect on the language you use with children and the language you hear them using with each other.
  • Model how you want children to speak to you and to each other. For example, “You picked up my pencil when I dropped it. That was so helpful! Thank you.”
  • Use “we,” “us,” and “our” to send the message that everyone contributes in the community.
  • Use words that invite children to solve their own problems, such as “Tell me a way that you would like me to help,” or “I need your help to solve this problem.”

Non-Verbal Communication

What you do is as important as what you say. Non-verbal actions can foster a child’s sense of comfort and pride, or they can create a feeling of anxiety and distrust. The delivery matters as much as the message.

Keep your tone warm, matter-of-fact, and respectful. Tone can overpower our words and sour our communication in an instant. Use the same voice you use with adults. Express care in a straightforward way.

Know when to be silent. It allows for thinking time and for children’s voices to be heard. Silence is essential to self-control, community, and academic knowledge. Provide wait time and pace responses, for yourself and for your children.

Be aware of your body language. Here are some ways you can show children you care about what they say and how they feel.

  • Turn towards the children
  • Get down to a child’s level
  • Make eye contact
  • Offer a hand
  • Nod
  • Smile
  • Keep your body open and arms at your side
  • Relax your face and body
  • Move close to a child

Sentence Starters to Encourage Cooperation

Try the following sentence starters to encourage cooperation and redirect misbehavior:

Sentence Starter Example
Who thinks they can remind us of a respectful way to… Who thinks they can remind us of a respectful way to greet a friend in the morning?

Who thinks they can remind us of a respectful way to ask someone to make space on the rug?
Show me what we need to do to … Show me what we need to do to be a responsible listener.
I noticed … I noticed that everyone kept their hands to themselves as you lined up.
I see … I see table two has everything they need to get started on writing.
I heard … I heard lots of kind words as we greeted friends this morning.
See if you can figure out … See if you can figure out a helpful way to work together.
Friends, I need everyone to… Friends, I need everyone to stop and listen right now.
What will you need to … What will you need to be able to do your work in a more productive way?

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