August 28, 2014

Your Words Matter: The Long Term Impact of a Teacher's Word Choice on Elementary Children

Here in the U.S. there seems to be a mindset amongst officials, parents, and even some teachers that the early years of a child's school career only matter as a starting point. Pre-K through third grade mostly focus on teaching a child to sit still and be quiet for hours at a time, to read and write and count and tie their shoes, and how to follow rules. Beyond this, little counts. Marks given in these grades don't count toward graduation or college acceptance beyond the child having passed through them to get to the next level, so what does it matter?

First Grade/Pre-K field trip to Cook's Natural History Museum.
Yet, it's in these early grades where we develop deep rooted ideas of self. Ask a child to describe themselves at the end of each year, and you'll see almost every one will have the same answer from third grade through the rest of their lives. Where do they get this self-image? Where did you get yours?

Between the time we ourselves are small and when we have toddlers or elementary children of our own, there's a tendency to forget how observant small children can be. That's why so many first time parents get embarrassed by their toddler repeating something they didn't think the child could have heard. Even when it looks like they are engrossed in play, a child's senses take in everything around them. They hear more than you'd think, and they often understand more than they can communicate. This is why the words you choose to use around your child or children in your care are so important.

Last week, I was tagged in a Facebook post of an article titled "The Learning Myth: Why I'll Never Tell My Son He's Smart." It's designed to cause the knee jerk reaction of believing the parent must be horrible, so you click on the article to berate them on their parenting skills. Suspecting this, I was a intrigued to read the actual article. As it turns out, the article details the differences between two commonly held mindsets regarding intelligence, the fixed model and the growth model, and it goes on to speak about how those models are learned as well as the impact they have throughout an individual's life.

As I read, I reflected back on my early years in school and those of some others I knew, whether family or friends. Considering many teachers spoke as if how smart we were was set, and our grades were just a reflection of our "smarts level," I became ever more thankful I had been taught differently before beginning kindergarten. Otherwise, I doubt I would have questioned it when I was placed in remedial reading in third grade. Instead of getting mad that these teachers were wrong about me, I might have just figured, "Well, I must be stupid, so I belong here."

Sneak reading her first comic book back in kindergarten.
That's not to say any of my teachers ever outright called me stupid or said I would never learn. But when you tell someone who hasn't fully developed a sense of self, "You are smart," or "You are pretty," or "You are lazy," you make those statements solid in their mind. It's worded like a fact, and young children automatically take facts to be true and unchanging. Most will live up or down to what they perceive is expected of them.

This is how children are taught the fixed model of intelligence. When they hear an adult talking about how one child is smart and another is stupid, or even just see adults interact with other children in a way that implies this, they get the notion that how smart someone is set and there's nothing anyone can do to change it. This can come in many forms: praising grades over effort, praising winning over working hard in practice, and dismissing progress.

This is the way many of us were parented because it was how our parents were raised. So, it feels natural to use this language when speaking with children. However, it's worth it to consider what difference a small change can make in the life of the next generation.

I'm a musician. Admittedly, I'm years out of practice, but learning a new piece is still a natural illustration for me when speaking with my children when they get discouraged. I've often talked with them about how I'd have to play a song piece by piece and slow to start, but with practice, I'd soon be able to play the song right. This has been especially helpful with Boo Bear and her struggles with reading as she compares herself with her younger sister, who reads much faster because she doesn't have the same learning difference as Boo.

Boo Bear writes picture books for fun these days.
There have been times over the years where Boo thought she'd never learn to read well or up to speed, but the idea of practicing how to read kept her going. Hubby and I have noticed a major improvement in her skill over the last six months, but she couldn't see it. So the other night, Hubby had her read the first few pages of a chapter book she tried and gave up on this time last year, "The Wind in the Willows." She flew through the whole first paragraph before it registered for her she'd read more than a sentence. That was the latest "ah ha" moment for her that has reinforced the growth mindset for her.

Sneak is another matter. Until now, she's flown through everything without a challenge. This has instilled a fixed expectation for herself even though she has a firm growth mindset for her sister. Because of this, Sneak has been frustrated and discouraged as she begins first grade. Hubby and I have started speaking with her about how we humans learn by practicing and trying things over and over again.

She doesn't care for the concept. Sneak huffs and pouts though each and every conversation with her arms crossed petulantly over her chest as if disagreeing strongly enough with the idea of trying and getting something wrong as a method of learning will make everything easy again. Yet, it is giving her hope whether she admits it or not. You can tell by the way she merely groans or whines about having to try another way when she gets something wrong versus the hair pulling, nail raking, self-punishing fits she was having even just a couple weeks ago.

Mindsets regarding intelligence are learned, and those mindsets have a major impact on our lives from the cradle to the grave. Whether you are a homeschooling parent, a new parent, a public or private school parent, teacher, babysitter, tutor, grandparent, or older sibling, your words matter. 

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