Language Matters: Words which Connect, Soothe & Nurture
In times of stress and uncertainty, our choice of language matters. Thinking beyond how we deliver instructions or provide information, our words can, first and foremost:
· Connect with a young person, establishing a sense of safety and trust.
· Soothe the young person’s inner thoughts and feelings through a curious and empathetic approach.
· Nurture the young person’s skills and strengthen their resilience.
Here are eight different aspects of language to consider, with some examples provided for each, as we consider the kinds of messages some young people may need to hear as they return to education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Young people returning to their school following the closure in March 2020 may have to become accustomed with new layouts, changes in staff and peer groups and adaptations to routines. Others who are transitioning to a new school environment will encounter a much wider range of unfamiliarity.
As Nurture UK emphasise, promoting a sense of belonging within the classroom allows everyone to feel “included, valued and safe”. Our language is therefore very important in welcoming young people back into education and connecting with them in a way which helps them to relax and become ready to engage in learning. Promoting opportunities to involve them with new roles and routines can be a great way of showing that we trust and value their contributions.
· “I’m so happy to see you again”.
· “I’ve really missed you”.
· “I’ve heard lots of lovely things about you and I can’t wait to get to know you”.
· “It’s ok to make mistakes – we’re still learning these new routines”.
· “I have a job that I know you would be really good at. Can you help me with it?”.
The theme of safety is continued here. As Dr Karen Treisman notes, children will be more emotionally regulated, organised and grounded when they feel and believe that they are secure. This is particularly true for those who have experienced trauma prior to or during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they are likely to need our support in moving out of survival mode and taking the risk of engaging with adults and peers.
While visual communication and structure will be powerful methods of making school environments more predictable, our words can also be a source of reassurance. They may need to be reminded that they are back in a safe place, that some things have not changed since the return and that we are available to help them when they need it. Reassurance can help to narrate this potentially difficult transition in a clear and positive light.
· School is a safe place – our main job is still to look after you”.
· “It’s ok to feel worried – it’s been a big change for everyone”.
· “Some things may look different but let me tell you what has stayed the same”.
· “I’m ready to help when you need me”.
· “I want to know what would make things better for you. We can get through this together”.
HOLD IN MIND
During any kind of significant disruption to daily routines and relationships, let alone a global pandemic, it is understandable for some young people to become very preoccupied with staying connected to the significant adults in their lives. You may know of students within your classroom whose past experience of sensitive and responsive relationships may have been inconsistent for any number of reasons. As Heather Geddes describes in her attachment-based case studies, this may leave the young person fearful of tasks and routines which require independence.
While some young people may benefit from concrete objects to represent the enduring relationship with a key adult in school, our words can also help them to feel kept in mind. We can convey how we were thinking of them during times when we weren’t with them, show that we remember their interests and preferences and be explicit in stating when we will see them again following a separation.
· “During the lockdown, I’ve been thinking about all the times we laughed together”.
· “When I saw that on TV, it made me think of you”.
· “I remember how you really like…”.
· “I haven’t forgotten about you. I’ll be back to check on you after I…”.
· “I really enjoyed spending time with you today. My favourite part was…”.
When we think about our own language, it’s important to keep in mind that not every young person will be able to put into words what they are thinking and feeling. Some may not have had this modelled for them on a consistent basis, whilst others may struggle to communicate verbally when their stress levels are elevated.
Marie Delaney recommends a type of emotional scaffolding which involves noticing and describing how the young person may be feeling. For example, a student who is very chatty and distracted may be anxious about not knowing how to complete a learning activity. Wondering out loud in this manner not only reminds us to be curious about the reasons for a behaviour, but it also models the language young people can use for these situations and helps them to see the links between their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
· “I’m wondering if you feel…”.
· “At this time for the last few days, I’ve noticed how you…”.
· “I think you’re trying to tell me that…”.
· “I see this happening and I’m guessing that it means…”
· “I want to check that I’ve understood what’s going on. Tell me if this is right…”.
For young people who have found the lockdown period very stressful and challenging, their return to school may be accompanied by confusing or concerning behaviour. While boundaries and discipline will remain important, Kim Golding argues that young people who have experienced trauma are less likely to understand that rewards and consequences are focused on the behaviour rather than the relationship with an adult. For some of the students returning to school, traditional behaviour management approaches may inadvertently escalate anxiety and induce shame.
In order to contain the powerful emotions which some may be experiencing, our use of language can enable us to remain open and engaged. Within Kim Golding and Dan Hughes’ approach of PACE, acceptance and empathy help to communicate that we understand the difficulties which the young person is facing. They avoid evaluating or judging the thoughts and feelings behind a behaviour. While the words below are just some examples of relational containment, it will be essential for our non-verbal communication (facial expression, tone and pitch of voice, body language) to also convey cues of safety and empathy.
· “I know this is really hard for you”.
· “It must be so frustrating when…”.
· “I understand that this is a big ask. No wonder you are so upset”.
· “I get that you don’t want to hear what I’m saying. It must feel so unfair”.
· “It must be sad to think that no-one cares. I do care, but it might be hard to believe”.
There will always be the potential for ruptures in a relationship. Kristen Souers and Pete Hell describe how some young people may lack sufficient experience with repairing such ruptures. They also explain how it is very easy for educators to overlook the need for repair, once they see that the young person has returned to a calmer state.
Without addressing what happened and reflecting on what could be done differently in the future, we leave ourselves open to the problem re-occurring and perhaps a negative cycle developing over time. The repair involves acknowledging that things didn’t turn out the way either side would have wanted. If the adult has inadvertently contributed to the rupture, perhaps by doing or not doing something in the heat of the moment, then we need to recognise and apologise for this.
· “No matter what happened, I still like you. That hasn’t changed”.
· “Things went wrong, but we got through it together”.
· “I’m sorry that I didn’t realise what happened. I can see how you felt that way”.
· “What can we do differently the next time this happens?”
· “Let’s make a plan. It’ll be like an experiment to see what works and what doesn’t work”.
This is about putting into words the positive qualities which the young person is demonstrating. Descriptive commenting is a key aspect of the Incredible Years Programme. Carolyn Webster-Stratton describes it as a commentary which allows the teacher to enter the young person’s internal world and narrate different ideas, thoughts and feelings.
The most basic level of this approach, particularly for preschool and early primary school children, is “academic coaching”, which focuses on concepts such as shape, colour, number, etc. An example might be “You have the blue car and the green truck”. We can also use coaching strategies which model key social and emotional skills and promote persistence with a task or problem.
· “You said ‘Can I have a turn?’ when you wanted the toy. That was a friendly way of asking him to share”.
· “You seem really confident about this. I can tell that you’re so proud of yourself”.
· I like how you’re looking carefully and taking your time. This is great concentration”.
· “This is tough stuff, but you’re staying calm and having another go”.
· “You asked for help just like we practised. I’m so happy that you let me know because now I can help you figure this out”
Louise Bomber argues that young people’s resilience is not static and that school staff are well placed to provide opportunities which strengthen their ability to withstand adversity. She talks about “reflective dialoguing”; commentaries which can help them to gain a healthier sense of who they are and what capabilities they have.
This type of dialogue should not only reflect upon the young person’s existing strengths, but also recognise and encourage further growth. In the context of COVID-19, some of the students in your classroom may be very worried about falling behind, how well they can catch up and what what the future holds. Our choice of language can therefore give hope and inspiration during these uncertain times.
· “Some things we can do by ourselves and some things we need a little help with at first”
· “I’ve noticed that you can now…”
· “You’re getting better and better at…”
· “Now that we can do this, I wonder if we could try…?”
· “This is tricky, but if we try it a few more times I know you will get it”.
Bomber, L.M. & Hughes, D.A. (2013). Settling to Learn. Settling Troubled Pupils to Learn: Why Relationships Matter in School. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Delaney, M. (2017). Attachment For Teachers: The Essential Guide for Trainee Teachers and NQTs. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Geddes, H. (2006). Attachment in the Classroom: The Links between Children’s Early Experience, Emotional Well-Being and Performance in School. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Golding, K.S. (2017). Everyday Parenting with Security and Love: Using PACE to Provide Foundations for Attachment. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Ruby, F. (Ed) (2019). Beyond the Boxall Profile: Whole-Class Strategies. Helping children succeed emotionally, socially and academically within the mainstream classroom and other small settings. London: The Nurture Group Network Ltd.
Souers, K. & Hall, P. (2016). Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom. Alexandria: ASCD.
Treisman, K. (2017). A Therapeutic Treasure Box for Working with Children and Adolescents with Developmental Trauma: Creative Techniques and Activities. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Webster-Stratton, C. (2012). Incredible Teachers: Nurturing Children’s Social, Emotional and Academic Competence. Seattle: Incredible Years Inc.