I grew up in a house where iconic and timeless expressions were used frequently. (I’m sure this isn’t unique to me.) These words and phrases were casually thrown around to describe things ranging from people’s behavior to various situations. In fact, these phrases became a part of my own vernacular. Most of the time these phrases seemed harmless; I understood the meaning and implications behind them (or so I thought I did). I knew they weren’t meant to offend me or anyone else. But, there was also some truth behind these expressions.

Most of us casually use expressions that we grew up with to convey our ideas. These expressions can be the same ones our well-meaning parents used, so it feels natural to use the same rhetoric. And these words are seemingly harmless (at least that’s what we assume). So often we forget that these words and expressions originated from somewhere, that they aren’t just random words strung together. And the problem is we have forgotten where the expressions came from. Some expressions are indeed harmless. But some carry more weight than we realize. Some of the expressions were first used by the people in power to describe a group of marginalized people, or to shame them.

I know that this concept can apply to racism. This is also true of the words we use about kids and people with learning disorders. Many of the ideas around modern education and school come from the 1900s, a time when learning disorders were not well researched. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the 20th century that disorders like dyslexia, ADHD, and autism were identified in people. Thankfully we have way more information in today’s world about these conditions, so our approach to helping these kids can become more sensitive. But, alas, there is progress still to be made.

It’s natural for everyone to want to use a label to describe something. It’s our way of figuring things out or explaining different things. If something is relatively low to the ground, we call it short. If something reflects the sunlight off of it, we call it shiny. Even the terms “boy” and “girl” are labels. We need language, and we need language that is specific and distinctive.

When it comes to working with kids, we label the behavior (and indirectly the child) based on the amount of success or grace they demonstrate. The kids that are considered high achievers get described as “mature,” “driven,” “motivated,” “engaged,” “hard-working,” “caring,” “socially graceful,” etc. On the other hand, the kids that aren’t high achievers get described as “unmotivated,” “immature,” “socially awkward,” “self-absorbed,” willful,” “lazy,” “stubborn,” “disengaged,” “rude,” etc. I myself received a handful of labels from the adults in my life (teachers, counselors, and my parents). I remember a high school math teacher calling me a slacker as she placed a late math packet on my table. The word stuck with me. I was also referred to as lazy, stubborn, unmotivated, and socially awkward. They’re still words that I remember to this day.

I get it. It can be challenging to figure out what works for the kids who aren’t performing as well. And sometimes we just want the easy fix, for them to show us what we know they’re capable of. And most of these kids crave success just as much as their classmates. The problem is they lack certain skills (social, emotional regulation, executive function, etc.). But when kids do hear derogative these terms used to describe them, they internalize the message. They begin to actually see themselves as rude and immature and lazy and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (sometimes due to shame and sometimes due to a need for attention).

To this day, I still remember the things teachers and other adults said to me. And I have flashbacks to the emotions that hit me when I heard those labels. One of the messages that I believed was that I slacked off in high school. I heard this from my parents and I heard this from a few of my teachers. It was something I believed about myself. And it’s something I felt ashamed of. It’s taken me years to realize that I had executive function issues and anxiety that interfered with my ability to succeed, that I needed more help than what I received.

I think that we need to find other language to describe kids who aren’t high achievers. It may seem trite or trivial (like the language can’t hurt them), but these words carry more weight than we realize. Our current vocabulary is full of blame. Why can’t they just work harder? Why are they so lazy? Why can’t they just motivate themselves? Would it kill them to even try? We believe that these kids just need to put in more effort and work harder to get better results. And we believe holding them accountable using grades and punishments they will develop that maturity.

But if we use language that isn’t blaming them, the narrative starts to shift in our minds. For instance, instead of saying that a child is “lazy” because they don’t do their work, we could try saying that the child is overwhelmed or doesn’t know how to manage their time (whatever the reason is). Or if a child seems immature, we could reframe it as the child needs to learn some social skills. The new narrative that is created is one of a child that needs help learning something. Additionally, when we reframe the narrative, we can change our approach to talking to our kids. Asking questions about the struggles in the child’s life is more logical at this point. This entire process (it’s actually not that complicated) creates a different dynamic in our relationships with our kids.

They actually feel safer coming to us to share their problems. So, what’s the moral of this blog post? Let me paraphrase it that in a brief message. The vocabulary we use (though it may not seem that powerful) actually frames our perspective. In regards to kids with learning disorders, our current vocabulary used to describe our kids’ struggles can actually bring more harm than good. Words like “lazy,” “immature,” and “socially awkward” put the blame on the child. In contrast, stories like “lacks conversational skills,” or “struggles with organization” reframe the problems such that the kid needs help. I believe that we need to turn the language into words of struggles or potential learning rather than blame. I believe adults become of better service to the kids when we assume that they need help learning something. And I think that the payoff is an adult life well lived by our kids.

Our Vocabulary is Harming Students with Learning Disorders

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49 thoughts on “Our Vocabulary is Harming Students with Learning Disorders

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