Using Intentional Language

Published On: 22 April 2024

In schools, as in all areas of life, the words we use matter, and in the context of behaviour, being intentional with our language has the power to transform perceptions of behaviour, both within and beyond the school gates.

In our recent publication, Creating Consistency: Developing a shared understanding of behaviour in international schools, we took a look at behaviour more broadly, but also examined how the terminology we use to talk about it can influence – positively and negatively – our school’s unique behaviour identity, and but also the way in which students, staff and parents and carers respond to and engage with our approach to behaviour support.

Why language matters

The very word ‘behaviour’ can, for some, have negative connotations, conjuring up images of so-called ‘bad’ behaviour and ‘naughty’ students who ‘refuse’ to comply with the rules and regulations of school life. Sometimes, the mere mention of that word triggers an automatic reaction at a subconscious level, resulting in the creation of unfounded assumptions and unhelpful pre-judgements. In some cases, it can even lead to statements such as, “Jonah is a challenging child”, or “Asha is naughty.”

Thankfully, with improved understanding around the functions of behaviour, such labels are becoming increasingly rare. However, even in settings where we successfully separate the individual from their behaviour, and are competent at identifying the underlying factors, we still sometimes hear terms like ‘challenging’ or ‘difficult’ behaviour. While these may be well-meaning attempts to describe what we see, the bigger question might be: whom is the behaviour challenging for, and what has led the child or young person to behave in that way?

Left unchecked, such terminology can cause or perpetuate negative perceptions of and attitudes towards behaviour, both at school and at home.

Behaviour as communication

Of course, as caring professionals who always have students’ best interests at heart, we would never intentionally use careless or inflammatory language; it’s far more likely to be the case that we struggle to find more effective, positive, and constructive ways to talk about the behaviours that we see in school, so we may inadvertently default to phrases such as ‘challenging behaviour’.

However, stepping back and reframing behaviour as the communication of an unmet need allows us to think more deliberately about the language we use, and approach situations with curiosity, compassion, and clarity.

While every setting is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the language we could use around behaviour, there are steps we can take to ensure that our choice of language reflects a shared desire to offer the best support to every child and young person.

1: Shine a light on behaviour

Make behaviour something that is discussed openly, honestly, and positively, not just between staff and students, but also with parents and carers. Involving families, opening up two-way communication channels, and creating regular opportunities to ask and answer questions, helps to remove any feelings of shame, blame or stigma, and can be hugely empowering for leaders, teachers, children, and families alike.

It’s also important to share ‘good news’ stories around behaviour with parents and carers, so that any negative associations can be addressed and overcome. For example, it might be a case of a making a quick phone call at the end of the school day, or sending a short text message home to celebrate a child’s efforts and achievements. Within those communications lies the opportunity to model the positive, supportive language that we use in school.

2: Find out more about emotional regulation

Just like all of us, when children and young people engage in distressed behaviours, it’s because they are trying to tell us something. Perhaps they are tired, angry, frustrated, scared or overstimulated; maybe their behaviour is an attempt to soothe a dysregulated nervous system as a result of trauma; or it could be that they are trying to avoid a certain situation.

Our job, then, is to puzzle-solve, and join the dots to uncover the underlying reasons for that behaviour. Viewing what is going on through the lens of emotional regulation enables us to choose compassionate language that supports and reassures individuals who are in a heightened state.

3: Embed chosen language into school policy

Substituting individual words can have an enormous impact. For example, rather than talking about ‘behaviours of concern’, we could talk about ‘behaviours of interest’, or ‘behaviour that needs support’; rather than referring to a child as being ‘challenging’, we could talk about them being ‘distressed’ or ‘dysregulated’. This, of course, relies on the shared understanding that behaviour is the communication of an unmet need.

Modelling the language we expect ourselves and others to use is just one part of the process: we need to enshrine our specific expectations in school policy and practices, disseminate these to all staff, and ensure that everyone across the setting is using our preferred terminology. We need to be prepared to hold others to account, and work collaboratively to embed a positive practice of intentional language across the entire school community.

4: Consider the contextual subtleties of language

In international school communities, where any number of languages may be spoken by staff, students and parents, it’s even more important to consider the nuances of the spoken word, to ensure messages are not lost in translation, or open to being misconstrued.

Moreover, we also need to pay heed to differing interpretations of body language and non-verbal interactions, taking cultural differences into account. For example, a gesture or stance that might be typical for individuals from one particular background, may be construed as confrontational and aggressive by another.

Language as a balm

Language has the power to heal or harm, and we need to get to a place where the words we use benefit those we seek to support. Changing the way we think and talk about behaviour, and using well-crafted, intentional language can help us to create school environments where we value connection and compassion over correction, and where we seek to understand and support behaviour in all its forms.

If you’d like to talk to us about your needs when it comes to supporting behaviour in your setting, please get in touch any time.