Teacher Language: A Habit Worth Developing
We speak over 15,000 words per day (Mehl et al., 2007), which means that there are many opportunities to build up students, colleagues, and loved ones— or opportunities when we (unintentionally or not) cut them down. Speaking that many words a day also means there are countless opportunities throughout the school year to refine what we say to ensure that our message is delivered in a way that is easily received and interpreted as intended. Establishing good language habits allows us to be intentional and purposeful with the words we use, maximizing the potential positive outcomes each time we speak.
For almost 40 years, Responsive Classroom practitioners have used a practice of teacher language: the intentional use of language to enable students to engage in their learning and develop the academic, social, and emotional skills they need to be successful in and out of school.” (Responsive Classroom, n.d.). Using this powerful practice, we encourage dreams, reinforce positives, remind students of rules, redirect behavior, and truly listen to students to ensure that they feel a sense of belonging and significance throughout the school day. Practitioners are constantly developing the practice of teacher language, identifying areas for further growth as soon as an area of mastery is established. As habits that support skillful use of teacher language are developed, an examination of patterns will lead to continued refinement.
Regardless of where you are in your familiarity and practice in using teacher language, building a habit around the intentional use of this practice will lead to great results (Responsive Classroom, 2019). According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits (2018), there are five steps to building a habit. Using these five steps will help you create a strong habit of positive teacher language that will support your students and colleagues, and ultimately lead to the creation of an optimal learning environment for all.
Five Steps to Building a Habit
- Start with the smallest step toward your desired habit outcome. Decide on one aspect of teacher language you would like to focus on. To help you choose, consider recording yourself on your cell phone for an hour of the day or reading about the different aspects of teacher language (Responsive Classroom, 2003). Once you’ve decided on what to focus on, narrow it even further. For example, if you want to increase the amount of reinforcing language you are using throughout the day, you might consider starting a new habit by using one specific reinforcing phrase each day for a week.
- Increase your habit in small increments. Once you have seen success with your smallest step, increase your implementation with the next smallest step. For example, after you’ve incorporated one specific reinforcing phrase into each day for a week, add a second phrase to be used each day.
- As you see success, break your goal into smaller chunks. If your ultimate goal is to develop the habit of embedding reinforcing language in all aspects of your day, you’ll soon see that adding a phrase each week helps you gain momentum. To keep your goal of reinforcing language being interwoven into your day, consider breaking down your goal to help you focus; for example, use 10 reinforcing phrases between 7:00 and noon, and then 10 more phrases between noon and 4:00. Breaking down the ideal habit will support your growth and help you remain on track.
- Never miss twice. It is natural that you’ll experience a setback as you work toward developing your new habit, and the key to success is to get quickly back on track. For example, if you realize that you only used three reinforcing phrases one morning, don’t allow yourself to miss the afternoon, too—never miss twice! The setback has occurred, and as soon as you realize it, prevent it from happening a second time.
- Set a sustainable pace. To help see and feel success in the development of your new habit, it is important that you set a pace that you can sustain. One reinforcing phrase per day at the beginning may feel like too little and you may feel like you can do more. However, by keeping it to one phrase per day, you are setting yourself up for success. What happens if you say three reinforcing phrases in one day that first week? Fantastic growth and you’ve exceeded your goal! It is important, however, that you don’t suddenly increase your goal to three phrases a day because you have done it once. Instead, keep your expectations at a level that you can consistently achieve and celebrate the times that you exceed them.
Modifying the words we speak can be challenging because we’ve spoken so many words prior to wanting to change what we’re saying! To make the new habits stick, realize that there may be times when our words feel forced, but that with practice and increased comfort we’ll be seamlessly interweaving powerful phrases and questions into our day that will support student learning.
- Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones. Avery: Garden City, NY.
- Mehl, M., Vazire, S., Ramirez-Esparza, N., and Slatcher, R. (2007, August). Are women really more talkative than men? Science 317(5834):82. Retrieved from https://www. researchgate.net/publication/6223260Are_Women_ Really_More_Talkative_Than_Men
- Responsive Classroom. (n.d.). Principles and practices. Retrieved from https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/ about/principles-practices/
- Responsive Classroom. (2019). Teacher language. Retrieved from https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/category/ teacher-language/
- Responsive Classroom. (2003). The power of language. Retrieved from https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/ the-power-of-language/