As a teacher, it is all too easy to say something we don’t mean to a student in the heat of the moment. In this post, I will examine 11 things you should NEVER say to a student in order to protect their social-emotional well being.
Our students are carrying way more emotions than ever, and it is our responsibility as their teachers to help them wade through these feelings. There are a lot of helpful ways to address students’ emotional ways, but there are also some phrases that can hurt our students, make them feel othered, or send them deeper into distress.
I know I have used a few of these phrases in the past, but I now work twice as hard to erase them from my vernacular in life, but especially in the classroom. I have never claimed to be perfect at this, but it is a prime example of when we know better, we do better.
This is not an exhaustive list, but instead a list to get you started and thinking about the words you choose to use with your students. By making a list it serves as a starting place to brainstorm phrases that can be used instead to build up our students instead of tearing them down when they are already feeling low.
The following list is in no particular order and I tried my best to explain how each phrase is harmful and to offer alternatives, but I would love to hear from you in the comments with what else can be added.
But You Have Nothing To Worry About
Our students, in fact, have a whole lot to worry about. This phrase minimizes their very real worries and concerns and tells them they are not valid.
Instead, work with your students to identify their worries and classify them into things within their control and things outside of their control. Then, brainstorm what they can do about the items within their control.
No One Ever Said Life Is Fair
Students know life is not fair. By the time they have reached our classrooms they have experienced this unfairness more times than they can likely count. This phrase rubs salt in the wound.
Instead, talk to your students about their concerns and establish what they feel is the injustice then work together to find a solution. Many things within the classroom can be made more equitable through discussion and brainstorming on the class level. Sometimes, as the teacher, we do something the same way we have always done it when our students have a better idea. It is our job to listen to them.
Stop Looking for Attention
I recently read that students we have traditionally referred to as “attention-seeking” should be relabeled as “relationship-seeking” and that was a gut punch for me. It hit the nail right on the head. These are the exact students we should be pulling out all the relationship-building stops for.
Instead of using this phrase engage with the student and ask them questions to get to know them in an effort to build a meaningful relationship. I would highly recommend the 2×10 strategy to accomplish this. You can find this strategy and others in this post about giving attention-seeking students the right kind of attention.
Stop Feeling Sorry for Yourself
We need to remember that these are tiny humans we are working with in the classroom, and I don’t know about you, but even as a fully grown human I still feel sorry for myself from time to time. It is part of being a human.
Again, our students need to know that their feelings are valid and shared by many. They are not the only ones who have a down day. Talking through feelings with students and letting them know they are not alone can be a big relief for them. Also, don’t be afraid to call in back up. School counselors are saints who often have just the right book or words to help our students out. They should not be reserved for “special cases” but instead used widely throughout the school population.
It’s Your Own Fault
Students know when something they did is causing them to feel things. We, as the adults in the room, do not need to pile onto this distress.
Work with students to instead build an action plan to find a solution when possible, or make a list of things that could be done to prevent a problem from happening again. This proactive approach will leave students feeling empowered with as little residual guilt as possible.
Snap Out of It or Move On
At the moment, something really tiny to us can feel huge for our students. With these phrases, we are telling them their feelings and thoughts aren’t worthy of your time.
Instead of moving on and telling them to do so we can work with students to talk through what is bothering them. This can often be handled quickly in the moment instead of letting it fester until a student is ready to spew. A simple, “I see you look upset, is there anything I can help you with?” is often enough to allow the student to express their feelings and give you insight into the dilemma.
It Could Be So Much Worse
I don’t know about you, but my brain is amazing at finding the worst-case scenario, and when this phrase is mentioned I am extremely talented at taking it way too far. Our students are too.
Acknowledging that a situation isn’t sunshine and rainbows can sometimes be all it takes. Letting a student know that the current climate of the classroom isn’t ideal and they are not alone in feeling that way is powerful. Once again, validating and listening to a student’s feelings goes a long way.
Again, our tiny humans often have not been taught how to problem solve and they wind up whining a little. Hey, I am an adult and get my whine on from time to time. I am not pointing fingers.
I don’t like to be called whiny and neither do our students. I find the best way to help when negative thoughts take over is to give them a short break. Allow a restroom or water break and then a little chat. Try and get to the root of the problem and find a short term solution until something longer term can be worked out.
What is Your Problem?
This one is tricky because it might seem like you are trying to help, but it is a bit direct. Harsh really.
A simple reframe to “What can I help you with?” goes a LONG way and takes the negative connotation away immediately.
I once saw a meme that stated that never in the history of the world did something saying calm down every help anyone to calm down and truer words were never spoken. In fact, I don’t think there is another way to rial someone up with just two words.
Calm down is such an abstract demand. Especially when many of our students don’t know what it takes to calm themselves or self soothe. If you are going for a directive, try something more specific like, “Let’s take a deep breath together,” or “Would you like a drink of water?”
My absolute least favorite thing to be told or for someone, myself included, to say to a student is, “You’re fine.” There is no faster way to completely invalidate how someone is feeling, and if you have gotten this far in the post you likely know that validating our students’ feelings and letting them know they are not alone is the big goal here.
Instead, ask questions or make I statements that will allow the students to express themselves and then work together to find a solution to what is troubling them.
Want More Quick Teaching Tips?
Subscribe to our newsletter to get our latest blog posts by email.