Do Our Positive Words Negatively Affect Students?

Do Our Positive Words Negatively Affect Students?
By Ahmad Amirali

This morning, while working on my lesson plans, I reviewed an article on Power of Words that mentions the importance of using positive and encouraging language and its impacts on adolescent’s mental and personality development. I still remember, my mum used to say ‘Go on, champ!’ or ‘don’t worry! You’re a smart kid’. Similarly, my teacher used to cheer me and encourage me by using similar kind of words. Our words play an essential role in the cognitive development of our student more than anything else. One line of appreciation, one word of praise during the class, even the word ‘excellent’ meant a lot to a student who finished presenting his/her project. We all know the power of positive and affirming words, and I agree with the article. Still, the question that is puzzling my mind since this morning can positive words have a damaging effect on student development?

I have observed supportive and encouraging language throughout my teaching phase, such as you’re special, bright, a beautiful soul, awesome and great job by parents and teachers to heighten students’ confidence and self-esteem. However, while they appear completely positive, all of these phrases might have a negative effect on kids. When spoken consistently, students can draw the wrong conclusions and can begin sabotaging their own growth.

Tim Elmore, founder and leader of Growing Leaders NGO and the author of Artificial Maturity, Helping kids meet the challenge of becoming authentic adults, believes that frequent use of such positive language in front of adolescents might impact their mental development. He highlighted some findings from the data gathered by the focused groups where students who’ve been told such things were asked about their conclusions and resulting conduct: (Source Psychology Today)

  • Students who’ve repeatedly been told, ‘You’re special’ from a very young age can often feel entitled to special incentives or advantages as a result.
  • Students who’ve been consistently told, ‘You’re smart’ from a very young age can conclude, ‘If I’m so smart, I shouldn’t have to try so hard.’
  • Students who’ve been frequently told, ‘You’re beautiful!’ from a very young age, especially girls, can often wonder ‘why all the boys aren’t asking them out for a date.’
  • Students who’ve been constantly told, ‘Awesome job!’ will often find it challenging to manage constructive criticism or hard feedback.

So, how do we navigate and handle such scenarios once we have created them? Some alternatives might’ve helped teachers and parents choosing their words wisely.

  • Instead of “you’re special,” what if we said: “You’ve got unique gifts that could be very useful when you see the big picture. You can play an essential role on a team.
  • Instead of saying, “You’re smart.” What if we said: “I love how hard you worked on that problem. That strategy and work ethic will be useful on a job one day.”
  • Instead of “You’re beautiful.” Why not say: “Do you know what’s most attractive about you? It’s your empathy for others, the way you care for them. It’s beautiful.”
  • Instead of always saying, ‘Awesome job’, Why not limit the word ‘awesome’ and start saying ‘I’m giving you these comments because I have high expectations of you and I know you can reach them.’

As a teacher, I believe that students’ first person whom they role-model are the ones who inspire them emotionally or be precise through language. As someone says, ‘Words are free, it’s how you use them that may cost you. Therefore, we sometimes forget that even our overuse of positive words may negatively affect someone, especially young minds.

Be loveable, be POSITIVE and be humble 😊

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