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The Need for Careful Language Choice

language choice

Over the years we have worried about being politically correct when talking about people who are different. These may be students who have differences in academic ability, mental health, sexual identity, addiction, disabilities, and more. The reality is that adults who work in schools need to select words carefully. The language which we use impacts students more than we realize.

Select Words Wisely

Imagine being a child who has grown up hearing specific words used about them. Rather than hearing their name associated with success, it’s a diagnosis they hear. Joey is dyslexic so he can’t do that assignment. Kathy is autistic and won’t understand.  Meanwhile, they listen as teachers, therapists, and others praise their classmates.  Look how much Paul has written for his project! The difference is staggering and will begin to affect children over time.  Using words like “autism” and “dyslexia” may be true, but they make kids feel sad, mad, and like they are not good enough.

School counselors and therapists must be the first line of defense on this topic. It’s time to come up with ways to talk to and about students’ choices that are not judgmental and diagnostic in nature. Autism is not who Kathy is, it’s simply a way to understand that she’s wired differently. Most of these diagnostic words have no use in the classroom. They should only be in paperwork which helps individuals working with these children. The focus needs to be on presenting kids with positive reinforcement on things they excel in. Remind them of how well they do one thing and divert their attention away from struggles when they are feeling down.

Use Non-Judgmental Words and Share

Autism can be a harsh word and doesn’t really convey a lot for a very complex diagnosis. Now consider what the Maori language has done. They recently added 200 words to their language that help to describe more complex issue for disabilities, mental health, and addiction. The goal of the new words is to provide more non-judgmental options. One example from the Maori is the word Takiwatanga. They selected this for autism because it means in his/her own time and space.

Words are powerful and kids are always listening. We need to encourage the use of non-judgmental ways to talk to students about their differences. Takiwatanga flows and describes so much in a way which is not hurtful. Create a task force in your school of students, teachers, counselors, therapists, and others to think of ways to work on this in your building. Come up with ways which you will implement the use of this idea. Everyone must be on board and willing to make this change a reality.

How does your school work on word choice when talking to or about students with differences? Please share with us in the comments section below what you have done and how it has been received by your school.

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