Building Classroom Communities: The Power of Language

Building Classroom Communities: The Power of Language

by Kristi Mraz, a member of The Educator Collaborative

I am so delighted to be writing again for the Educator Collaborative blog. The response, questions, and feedback on the last post was inspiring. So inspiring I am back again to tackle some of the questions.

First Things First:

HUGE standing ovation to every teacher that got rid of clip charts, marble jars, and all of that other stuff in the past few weeks. It has been amazing to see and hear what people have been trying. You can follow Christine (@christine_hertz) and me (@MrazKristine) for retweets of the great work happening in classrooms as we shift from a culture of compliance to one of community.

Next Things Next:

Getting rid of the clip chart or the marble jar is just the first step. Lots of you reached out to say, “now what?”  Christine talked about how to teach social skills here, but there are other seismic shifts we have to make in our way of being with kids and the way we handle the behaviors we see in our classroom. Getting rid of the clip chart is kind of like getting rid of the junk food when you are on a diet. That doesn’t mean you have learned how to make smarter food choices or integrated exercise into your lifestyle.


Belief:  Management system, I don’t need you!

Reality Strikes:  Without my clip chart, or my marble jar, I am not sure WHAT to say in situations where I used to say, “Do X to earn a marble” or “Please move your clip down for X.”

Language Describes and Prescribes

Language is the water of our emotional life. Subtly carving shapes into the rock, so slowly we don’t see it, until suddenly the Grand Canyon is in front of us.

Words shape how we see ourselves and our actions. Words set a path for how we might act in the future. Words can empower us or destroy us. If this seems dramatic, that’s because it is. The voice inside of our head is often an echo of the voice we heard in our childhood. (For more on that, it’s worth checking out this great article in Psychology Today about self talk.)

We talk about self talk for two chapters in a Mindset for Learning, so I won’t rehash this here, but in summary: be careful what you say, because that is what kids might become.

If you are a clutzy kid, which is to say a kid like every other, and each time you spill something or knock something by accident someone says, “Look what you did! You ruined____! You are so thoughtless!!!” A child begins to develop a story about themselves that sounds like this, “I am thoughtless, I ruin things for other people.” Which in turn starts to shade how they see neutral situations. This may lead to a child feeling shame, hiding mistakes, feeling unworthy- all because of language.

Now imagine, instead, same kid, different adult. This adult says, “Whoopsie! Accidents happen. Ask, ‘what can I do to help fix this?”

Then, says once the drink is cleaned, the blocks straightened, and the order restored, “Gosh thanks for your help! Accidents will happen, and your help made it a lot easier to fix!”

This lucky child develops a story that sounds a lot different: “When accidents happen, I can help the person, and that makes both of us feel better.” This too starts to shade how this person sees neutral situations, but instead of learning to hide or feel shame, this child feels empowered to help and fix-again, all because of language.

This lucky child develops a story that sounds a lot different: “When accidents happen, I can help the person, and that makes both of us feel better.”
I struggle with my language, and I mean STRUGGLE.

For the first years of my teaching, it was a non-stop parade of “I like how you…” and “You are so smart you…” and “You made him cry! Say sorry!” And when I learned that I should stop saying those things because of the way they promoted a fixed mindset, or eroded a child’s sense of capability, I was literally speechless.

I didn’t realize that saying “You are so smart” would in turn make a child feel “dumb” if they had to work hard on something. Nor did I realize that throwing that “I like…” around was turning my children into pleasers not thinkers.

Once I took those phrases out, I had nothing else to say. So I learned a second language of sorts, one that was better for kiddos to internalize and say to themselves.

Process Praise

When Christine and I saw Carol Dweck speak in 2015, she said that using process praise has a positive impact on how kids take on challenge years after the fact.

Essentially, process praise is naming the steps or actions a child took to achieve a “thing”, rather than praising the “thing” itself or making the praise about the worth of the child. So all of those “You are so smart!” “You are such a good friend!” and “That picture is so beautiful!” comments we used to just throw into the atmosphere tint our environment towards one of a fixed mindset where some kids have it all figured out and others don’t.

When we name a process, we name something replicable, achievable, and separate from a child’s worth.

Praising a product is like asking someone to recreate a dish they saw at a dinner party. Naming or celebrating a process gives them a recipe card to use when trying it again.

Before praising, ask yourself:

  • Is this praise about the action/steps taken (You chose colors that help me picture what a beautiful day it was!) or about the product (What a beautiful picture)?
    • Aim for the action/steps
  • Does this praise make it about the impact on me (eg “I like how…) or about the impact on the child or the community (That helped your friend….)?
    • Aim for impact on child and community
  • How does this praise sound to a child struggling? Like a comparison (They are smart I must be dumb) or a roadmap (I can try that too)?
    • Aim for the roadmap

We can extrapolate this to say when we are not praising, but giving feedback about a different way to act, we want to keep to those guidelines.

Don’t make it about the child’s innate self, about its impact on us, and like a comparison. Instead talk about actions and their impact on the community, and offer a roadmap to a better way of acting. There is no better text for this than Peter Johnston’s Choice Words.

Let go of…

Instead try…

You are such a good friend When you shared that crayon with your friend, it made him smile. Sharing that was a kind action that helped a friend.
You spelled it right! Look at all the sounds you used when you wrote this! You said it slow and wrote each one and that makes it so easy for someone else to read!
Interrupting is disrespectful! When you give people time to finish their words, it makes them feel like you care about them. When waiting feels hard, take a deep breath and wait till you can share. It can help to tell yourself, “I will have a turn to talk.”


Positive Opposites

We initially learned about positive opposites from this article, but after a little investigation found that there is lots of evidence that we need to change a really popular teaching strategy. Before we talk about positive opposites, we have to tackle the behavior we are trying to replace- that is the if/then:

“If you don’t finish your work now, you will have to do it at free choice.”

“If you don’t share, no one will want to play with you.”

“If you don’t clean up, we won’t have the materials for this activity next time.”

Why waste time naming the negative when you can set the intention and image of the positive.

What is wrong with that? Doesn’t that just point out the logical consequences of not doing the right thing? Well, here is why I love science: it turns out kids do better when you tell them what TO do, then what NOT to do.

This is sort of like me trying not to eat cookies. I think, “If I don’t eat the cookie, I will feel better about myself.” But then what happens? I just start thinking about the cookie. Obsessively. On repeat. I visualize the cookie and how good the cookie will be when I eat it and before I know it I have eaten an entire tray of cookies. Instead, say the positive: “I’m going to eat an apple, then I will meet my fruit goal for the day!” Classroom examples include:

“Get your work done now and you will have lots of time at free choice for your LEGO project.”

“Sharing makes others want to play with you.”

“Let’s clean up carefully so the materials will be ready for next time.”

Basically, it is the positive opposite of a negative behavior. Why waste time naming the negative when you can set the intention and image of the positive.


Let go of…

Instead try…

If (negative thing happens) then (unwanted outcome) language structures

If you don’t line up we will be late to music

Saying the positive opposite

Let’s line up quick so we have plenty of time to sing our favorite songs in music!


Responding from a Place of Empathy

Okay, so now you are all stressed about your language. Welcome to the club! We are thinking of making t-shirts.

This next one is a little easier to take on, we think, because it is less about having the right thing to say and more just about taking a heartbeat to be in the moment.

Are you a fixer? We are. This is how conversations can go with us:

Person A: Here is my problem (describes problem)

Kristi: Here are three solutions and a flow chart to use…


…Now, have you ever been “fixed”?


Kristi: Here is my problem (describes problem)

Person A: Here are three solutions and a flow chart to use

Kristi (becoming irate): No, no, it’s not that easy!

Person A: Here are three more solutions and a more elaborate flow chart

Kristi (annoyed): Okay. Great. (Storms off annoyed)

Before we can even think about offering a fix, we first have to take a moment to feel; with our partners, our colleagues, our children, our students, the grocer, the person cutting in front for the bus, with everyone. Fixing is not our job. Relating human to human is our job.

There is much to say about why/how, which Christine is covering in the next post. So, I will leave you with this: many people can fix their own problems (this includes the kiddos in your classroom) if you give them a chance to feel their feelings in a safe and meaningful way.

Let go of…

Instead try…

Fixing a problem for a student right away,

e.g “Don’t cry, your mom will be back to get you at the end of the day.”

Starting with and echoing the feeling,

e.g. “You feel really sad that mommy had to go to work, huh?”

Language works in the two ways: it can show our thinking and shape our thinking. When we actively try to change our language, we can also change our thinking, and when our thinking changes, our language changes others’ ways of being in the world.

Please share your own thoughts about language and its impact on your classroom community in the comments!

(and you can check out our new book here!)



  1. Stephanie Steudel

    Wow! This post has so much to offer in terms of what language can do for a child and us as adults. Parts of this seem so common sense, like asking a child to clean up as opposed to complaining that the child made a mess. Even praising children correctly is huge. It’s hard to remind yourself to stop and think about complimenting something in a meaningful way–but the beauty of language is that this becomes second nature the more you expose yourself to it. The piece about positive opposites was powerful because we so commonly hear the “If…then…” statements and they don’t come off as negative. Yet compared to the idea of a positive opposite, it becomes very clear how something like that can shape a child’s perception. The best reminder from this piece was that we need to approach our children from a place of empathy. How we approach their thoughts and feelings can direct their next moves and reactions. I appreciated all of the insight and tips from this post. Thank you!!

  2. Nancy Lee

    Wow, this post is powerful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It makes so much sense. I definitely agree that language makes a huge difference in the response from children. It’s something that I really struggle with so I’m grateful to have read this post. I will check out Peter Johnston’s book, Choice Words, to learn more about using language to create a growth mindset classroom environment. Also, I recently purchased and read your new book, Kids First From Day 1. I read it in a day because I was so intrigued by it! Love it!!

  3. Ellin Oliver Keene

    Love this piece, Kristi! I have been so interested in the potency of our oral language, both teacher-initiated and responsive to children since Peter Johnston’s Choice Words. I just don’t think there is any way to overstate the impact of our language. I love the alternatives you offer here. None of us will get it “right” every time, but this gives us some principles to which we can aspire. So appreciated!! Thank you!

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