The start of a new school year is just around the corner, and cultivating a connected, joyful classroom community is at the forefront of educators’ minds. But exactly how do we create this esprit de corps? Some teachers come at it through morning meetings, closing circles, and other warm, predictable routines. We reach for riveting picture books that provide positive mirrors of our students’ identities and family structures. Special songs and games encourage kiddos to laugh and take risks together. In this blog, I focus on something that runs like a river current through it all: simple, specific teacher language that inspires students to lean into this new school year with an open-hearted, engaged, confident mindset.
All educators, regardless of personal pedagogy, agree on this point: what we say to students matters. But many teachers may still be surprised to discover just how powerful words can be when it comes to making or breaking a classroom culture. Neuroscientific research reveals that language is not separate from thought but a part of thought itself, shaping our inner lives from moment to moment. Linguist Noam Chomsky explains: “Language etches the grooves through which your thoughts must follow.” The words and phrases that we have access to trigger brand-new patterns of thinking, and until a learner is exposed to a certain language, epiphanies lie dormant. For instance, a teacher’s unusual pairing of the words “brilliant” and “mistake” in the phrase “what a brilliant mistake!” can rewire how a child responds to making mistakes, replacing feelings of shame with self-compassion and curiosity.
As a former third-grade teacher who now consults in schools and as a mother of two children under the age of four, it’s only recently that I’ve fully realized language’s power to shape our thinking and, subsequently, our behavior. Sure, I’ve always operated with awe that language enables us to express what’s within. But that it transforms what’s within—this is an exciting new frontier for me as an educator. Here are a few simple phrases that can inspire children to bring their whole selves to school, to navigate new academic challenges with a sense of playful independence, and to positively manage their inner lives.
Bite-Sized Language Suggestion #1: “I’m excited to teach you, not the curriculum. Everything you bring to our classroom community matters.”
For many students, it is revelatory to discover that “all they bring to the classroom community”—their unique strengths, interests, hopes, quirks, and worries—will inform their teacher’s planning and influence how the school year unfolds. The phrase “Everything you bring to this classroom community matters” can inspire students to open up, say what’s true, and connect deeply with peers and teachers. When children are getting to know one another throughout the first weeks of school, they can respond to the morning-meeting share prompt: “Something I bring to this classroom is___________ (A second language? An idiosyncrasy? A special interest in a topic, genre, or issue?).” When a student is upset, a teacher might say: “Remember, everything you bring to this classroom community matters. Every feeling is welcome here. What’s on your mind?” The repetition of this phrase by both educators and students reminds children that their self-worth is not dependent on being a compliant cog in a classroom machine. Their teachers value their one-of-a-kind contributions to the community.
Bite-Sized Language Suggestion #2: “Let’s approach our work today—and every day—with an ishful spirit.”
Even though “ishful” is a wonderfully silly made-up word, it’s a heavy hitter. The term is inspired by Peter H. Reynolds’ picture book Ish, a story about a little boy who tries to draw various objects and, frustrated that his work doesn’t look quite right, crumples up his drawings and throws them away. But his sister uncrumples his sketches and hangs them all up on a wall, explaining that even if the flower doesn’t look exactly like the flower that her brother had in mind, it’s “flower-ish.” Approaching assignments with an ishful spirit and never “squishing your own ish” means letting go of the idea that your work will turn out exactly how you had imagined and instead leaning into challenges with a sense of playful resilience.
After reading Ish aloud to students, consider sharing the self-talk prompts below and asking children to take a stab at drawing something difficult—completely independently—with an ishful mindset.
Bite-Sized Language Suggestion #3: “You are always kind inside even when you do not make a kind choice”; “You are separate from your feeling.”
Perhaps the most important thing we can impress upon young learners is that they are still good children even when they do not make good choices. When we speak in broad strokes, using language like “You’re unsafe!” or “You’re rude!” we communicate to students that they are their negative choices. And if that is so, how can they hope to change? In challenging moments, vigilance about describing the child’s choice rather than describing the child helps students maintain their dignity and reminds them that they can always turn things around. In instances of emotional dysregulation, reminding children that they “are separate from their feeling” can help them quickly and effectively gain some distance from the swirl of emotion within.
Cultivating emotional metacognition is critical for all students, not only those who outwardly struggle. Inspired by Rumi’s “The Guest House,” a poem about the varied feelings that visit our minds each day (“This being human is a guest house/every morning a new arrival”), consider asking students to name and categorize some of their daily “feeling visitors” through a popcorn share, a poetry prompt, or a private notebook jot, to name a just a few options. This non-judgmental practice of naming feelings helps students develop metacognition and emotional granularity, which is tethered to greater psycho-social well-being. As Dr. Dan Siegel says, they can “name it to tame it.”
Finally, in addition to fostering self-compassion and self-regulation, this pair of bite-sized language nuggets can inspire children to embrace a more empathetic understanding of their peers’ challenging behavior. When a child pushes a chair in frustration, a fellow student who has internalized the big ideas within these phrases understands that their classmate is not a “bad” kid but simply someone who is struggling to regulate. This is a radical shift in perception that empowers children to move away from the ever-popular “what is wrong with you?!” lens and towards a “what about this is hard for you?” lens—an infinitely more nuanced, productive approach to navigating others’ frustrating behavior.
The Power of Brief, Connected Moments
Intentionally weaving this affirming language throughout curricula is both practical and deeply impactful. Lasting change is rooted in the hundreds of micro-decisions that we make each day and in the language we use during quick, connected moments. Dr. Bruce Perry writes: “The most powerful and enduring human interactions are often very brief.” Educators don’t need to abandon all the wonderful things they’re doing to transform their classroom culture—subtle changes in how teachers and students communicate can initiate a tremendous shift.
Here is to a great new school year. To close with a well-known example of empowering language: You’ve got this.
Learn more useful shared language tips you can use in your classroom by watching the latest episode of Literacy Matters.