Language Matters #5: Use Your Words

Why does language matter anyway?

For most people, language is their primary way of interacting with the world and one another.

It is a way to make our thoughts visible for those around us and, as a way of making sense of our inner workings too. It is important to note at this point that not everybody communicates verbally and, although this little series will be focusing primarily on spoken language and the impact that it has on the way we think, this effect is not restricted to those who don’t use spoken language as their primary means of communication (because the language we use informs the way we think, which in turn affects the way we behave both at a conscious and subconscious level, which ultimately impacts those around us).

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Use Your Words

“Use your words.” A common demand made on children and young people who are struggling to express their needs through language and end up having to resort to behaviour to ask for what they want. I have used it myself in the past, but the way that we approach behaviour through our language has a huge impact on the outcome. 

What’s wrong with “Use your words.”? 

This statement disregards all the other communications that are happening in that moment and prioritises verbal communication above all other expressions. I am not saying that we should accept or ignore explosive, violent or dangerous behaviour, but we must acknowledge that all behaviour is communication. If a young person has reached that point of expression, they probably aren’t able to use their words, otherwise they would be doing that.

No child enjoys feeling vulnerable, frustrated or unsafe. Before trying to figure out what the trigger was, we must first move to acknowledge the student’s pain as valid and help them find a way to feel safe. Only once this has happened can we ask them to communicate in a more appropriate way. 

We might say, “Jessica, I think you’re feeling angry this morning, can you tell me why?”. Notice that I have said, “I think”. I have told them what I think they might be feeling but have given them space to tell me that’s not true. I have also separated the person from the feeling, not “you are angry”. This is a really important teaching moment for children and young people struggling to manage with big feelings. When they are framed as separate from the individual, they become something that the student is able to notice and respond to, rather than being controlled by. 

The second part, “can you tell me why?”, is a closed question. This is deliberate. It allows the student to say no. They might not want to tell you what is bothering them, that is okay. They must have a way out. They have already been destabilised today. The recovery process for some children will be very quick. They may be able to “name and tame” their feelings very quickly. They may have a wide range of vocabulary to describe what is going on inside them.

The opposite may also be true. They may need to return to safe, familiar routines and activities in order to self-regulate before they have the capacity to consider what has happened. Students with a particularly fragile sense of self will need to feel even more supported and safe in order to explore their bad choices, as they are starting from a less secure place. 

If a student says yes, listen, acknowledge and support their exploration of how they felt and what happened as a result. Hopefully, this conversation will lead to a restorative action, a consequence that is designed to repair the damaged relationship. It could be as simple as an apology (this should be child-led and not demanded). It could be an activity at break time, helping the teacher they have upset tidy up their classroom. Whatever the consequence, it must not be viewed as a punishment by the adult – it may well be viewed as such from the child’s perspective and they may feel uncomfortable being confronted by an adult willing to put aside their ‘badness’. Again, this comes from a fragile sense of self, a projection that they aren’t enough, and it is our responsibility to show them that they count and that their communications, whilst not always appropriate, have been understood.

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