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  • Writer's pictureJulien Morizio

Words and Their Effect on Student Identity

Every child wants to be good. It just happens that some don't know how to be good.

I have found that no matter how much a child challenges authority or neglects their work, they want to succeed, both socially and academically. By socially, I mean that they want to be accepted at the same time by an authority figure they respect, their peers, and themselves. We have already discussed student autonomy before, but now we are going beyond that by addressing identity.

As kids grow, they learn more about what the world thinks than what they themselves think. They navigate through the dos and don'ts of their environment, and then imprint that blueprint onto themselves. They become what the world around them says they are, rather than who they truly are.

For precisely those reasons, words are powerful. Unfortunately, I have already heard too many students tell me that they're stupid, that they're impulsive, etc. Where did they get that impression of themselves? Most likely, it was an authority figure (a teacher, coach, or family member) who told them that. Such a criticism needs only to be said once to affect a child's belief about themselves. It affects them so much that it could become part of their identity.

Luckily, those negative feelings can be reversed. I believe that anything a child can muster within themselves can overpower what has affected them from the outside. The trick (if you wish to call it that) is to have them share the same belief. As an educator or parent, we can always reach that part of the child that wants to be good and even hold them accountable for being just that — good. That starts with the words we use when speaking to them.

Let's say though that the child has already made up their mind that they are a certain way: impulsive, loud, lazy, or any other character trait that gets in the way of their academic success. What is something we can do to make them overcome that belief about themselves? The first is to immediately oppose it. If relevant, you can even use the words that Les Brown's teacher famously told him: "Don't ever say that again. Someone's opinion of you does not have to become your reality."

We can go further than that by empowering a student to change that negative trait they have adopted. In Motivating Students Who Don't Care (2000), Allen Mendler suggests that we "defer to student power." It involves making the following statement to a student when the situation calls for it:

  1. "We both know that you have the power to __________________."

  2. "Thank you for using it."

It is simple, yet very effective. I can recall an incident where a student of mine was repeatedly talking out of turn. It interrupted the lesson and I had difficulty getting through my instruction. When I asked her to avoid talking while I spoke, she told me that she couldn't stop because she way impulsive. That's when I replied, "(Her name), we both know that you have the power to listen in silence, at least while I give instructions. Thank you for using it." I did so in a calm tone that did not welcome a rebuttal. I then turned my attention back to giving the lesson, which went smoothly for the rest of the period.

I recommend using this form of a statement because, not only does it work for me, but it is a healthy way to elicit a student's compliance. It is courteous, while at the same time straightforward. It preserves the student's need for autonomy, and might even have a positive influence on their identity.



  • Experience

  • Dobson, M. L. (2018). The Question Holds the Lantern. In E. Hasebe-Ludt & C. D. Leggo (Eds.), Canadian curriculum studies : a métissage of inspiration/imagination/interconnection (pp. 108-112). Canadian Scholars.

  • Les Brown. (2019, October 22). IT'S NOT OVER UNTIL YOU WIN - Georgia Dome (Les Brown's Greatest Hits) [Video]. Youtube.

  • Mendler, A. N. (2000). Motivating Students Who Don’t Care. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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