What We Say Matters. Improving Teacher Language as Part of SEL Implementation 

By: Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min

I walked into a classroom one day with a teacher telling a student they looked like a slob because his shirt was untucked. Not the kind of words that build up and encourage a child. We've all said something or been present when something is said to a student that makes us cringe. It can be cutting, disingenuous, or sarcastic. It has a real impact on a student's sense of worth and trust.

My previous school struggled with negative teacher language and school culture. It had an inexperienced, stressed staff that needed guidelines and support to build a strong classroom community through their actions and words. So that's what we did. We created guidelines for positive teacher language, reflected about what we needed to change, and held each other accountable in a non-threatening way. To prevent the frequency of negative teacher language, we have to internalize some guidelines and some self-reflection.


What is Positive Teacher Language?

Teacher language is what we say to a student and how we say it. According to the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, it is one of the defining instructional practices that supports social and emotional learning. Even better, it doesn't add anything to your plate. It is just a (better) different way of doing what you already do.

Positive teacher language should encourage a student's effort and future efforts. For example, students benefit from hearing what they did well and what they need to do to improve.

I see you worked hard on these 10 math problems. Big improvement. Let's take it up another level next time and use the strategy we learned yesterday.

Go beyond simple praise and build in encouragement.

Instead of “Nice job working with Elena.”

Try “I saw how well you and Elena did working together today. When you two cooperate like that you get so much done and it's great quality.”

Encourage students to reflect and regulate themselves. Probing questions about what worked or didn't are great for this.

You and Elena worked really well together today. What do you think made a difference? Was there a strategy you used?


10 Guidelines for Teacher Language

Be Direct

This one is going to be counter to other things you have been told. When students are not doing what is expected, don't go ahead and praise the one student that is.

Not this: I see that Gene is sitting and ready for the lesson to begin.

Instead, speak directly by saying what you want all students to do. If it is the beginning of the lesson, use a consistent cue to students.

(ring chime) Everyone have a seat. We are ready to begin in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

Indirect language doesn't make expectations clear. It can feel manipulative or embarrassing. There are some exceptions to this when trying to avoid giving attention to students who are seeking it, but there are better and more effective ways to deal with attention seeking behavior.

Sweat the Small Stuff

Knowing what is and isn't okay in your classroom is essential. Let's say that you want the noise level in your classroom at a whisper during independent work. The issues come when you don't follow through with that consistently.

Students don't internalize that that is necessary. Without fail, this will lead to you letting the noise level get too high and frustrated language because students are not following the (poorly implemented) rule.

Know your non-negotiables, and use kind, consistent language to enforce them. Students will quickly know a non-negotiable is being bent when you respond with the same language each time.

Teacher talk to students pin

Keep it Clear and Simple

Your language should be easy to understand and actionable. First graders cannot predictably remember three-step directions filled with language. They will regularly be walking around the room with their coat on at the end of the day and all their materials on their desk.

Simplify this by abbreviating your language and pairing it with visuals.

For example, say a second-grade classroom needs to get their folders and backpacks, put up their chairs, and get in line at the end of the day. Hold up 4 fingers. Say “Folders. Backpacks. Chairs. Line.” while pointing to a finger for each step. Have your class parrot it back. Once students know the routine, simple language helps them.

Student misbehavior often occurs when students don't understand directions or instruction.



Say the Affirmative

Tell them what you want them to do, not what you don't want them to. This is a tried and true rule. You likely have used it when developing your classroom rules.

Do you use it in your daily interactions with students? Pay attention to your language for a day and see how often you are correcting by telling a student not to do something.

Don't Ask, Tell

Make sure you aren't frequently asking students to do something that you should be telling them to do. We often will say, “Can you put that away?” rather than, “Please put that away.”.

Direct language is not harsh. It creates a culture where the boundaries are clear.

Expect the Best

A student's behavior and academic success are heavily influenced by the expectations you have of them. They can see it, even if you don't say it. Communicate whenever possible that you believe in them.

So many students who struggle require this relentless belief that they can meet expectations. This comes across in what you say and the way you say it. Rita Pierson brings a little 5-minute inspiration to this point.


Invite Cooperation

Expect that students will participate, follow directions, and work together. You do this through your language.

Show me how we line up for art.

Tell me three ways we can be good partners in group work.

This also extends to students' interactions with each other. Remove yourself as the only source of help or information. Encourage students to work together and help each other (“Three before me.”).

Cooperation throughout the day builds classroom community between students and you.

Be Sincere

Kids can spot a fake. Be authentic. Give praise that you mean and be specific.

Now, you aren't going to like every student. That's okay. But you need to find the positive in each student and begin your relationship from there. If you miss this step, your language will either be frustrated at times or inauthentic as you try to fake it.

Watch Tone, Volume, and Body Language

There are times that a student can get under your skin or be out of control. As the quote goes, don't join in their chaos. Instead, keep your tone kind, your volume controlled, and your body language relaxed.

I do this by focusing on my breathing, repeating expectations, and keeping my language simple. It allows me to get back to a less stressed space, and models for students how to handle situations that are not going perfectly.

Keep Your Sense of Humor

Humor can be a double-edged sword. When used correctly, it can diffuse a situation, build relationships, and make the day entertaining. Used poorly, it can escalate a situation or embarrass a student.

Your ability to use humor will depend on your personality, the community you built, and your students' ability to interpret it. Tread lightly with sarcasm and younger students.

Sarcasm and humor should always be used to build and not to knock down.

 Read about more SEL teaching practices to bring into the classroom.


Student-Centered Discipline Promotes Social-Emotional Learning

Responsive Classroom: 3 Rs of Teacher Language

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I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.
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