By Leah Davies, M.Ed
Most educators can recall a teacher’s comment that either encouraged or discouraged them. Positive messages foster a child’s growth and are constructive, while negative messages can defeat and discourage a child. Our words can have a profound effect upon a child’s attitude and behavior. A comment like, “You better do well on this test,” can threaten a child’s confidence. In contrast, by saying, “This is an important test, but I know each of you will do your best,” can inspire children to try harder. Here are some examples of teacher comments made to children that illustrate how the right (or wrong) words can discourage or encourage:
A discouraging comment such as… “You are slow like your brothers. You may never learn to read.”
…would lead the child to internalize the message and quit trying.
An encouraging comment such as… “You do well in math and I believe you will become a good reader. I will help you learn to read!”
…would make the child think that if his teacher believes that he can learn to read, maybe he really can! The student will feel proud of his math ability and be ready to try to improve his reading.
A discouraging comment such as… “You are always in trouble. You are just one of those children who cannot get along with others.”
…would lead a child to believe that she is a hopeless troublemaker who will never have friends.
An encouraging comment such as… “You are a talented artist. Getting along with others is something that can be improved upon. I know you will be able to learn how to share and take turns.”
…would inspire a child to try to live up to her teacher’s expectation of her being able to behave appropriately.
Teacher comments can have a significant impact on a child’s self-esteem. Many students come to school sad and discouraged as a result of poverty, abuse or other problems. Children desperately need someone to believe in their worth and encourage them to try harder to do their best!
Jerry Moe, a renowned national speaker and prevention specialist for children at the Betty Ford Center, shared his childhood at a recent conference. His parents were alcoholics who were unavailable to help him grow and develop into a self-confident child. As an adolescent, he exhibited delinquent behaviors. One day a substitute teacher called him aside and said, “You are too good to get in trouble. I see a lovable child underneath your tough exterior. You are a valuable human being. I know you can make a contribution to this world.” Mr. Moe reported that those few words turned his life around and he began to believe that he could develop into a worthwhile person.
Students with a low sense of worth dwell on their weaknesses. Teachers who search for and discover each child’s strengths can contribute greatly to a child’s revised self-concept. When a teacher mentions a child’s strengths, he or she will most likely begin to believe he has abilities.
For example a teacher might say:
“I see you can run very fast. You may want to be on the track team someday.”
“I have been thinking about your project idea, and I have decided to use it!”
“What a creative story! I am going to hang your paper on the bulletin board.”
“What bright colors you used in your picture. Maybe you will become an artist!”
Words that paint successful pictures for children stimulate optimism about their future and thus encourage positive behaviors. If you want to inspire your students, stop and think before saying something defeating and then express the idea in a constructive, encouraging way.
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