Order of language matters in how we talk about students

Lately I have been thinking about labels.  In fact, I have noticed that I am down right sensitive to the labels we use when talking about people.  Reflecting on why these labels often upset me, I have realized that what I am most afraid of is the stereotypes that these labels project.  In one of the most moving TED Talks I have watched  The Danger of A Single Story   Chimamanda Adichie says that the danger of a stereotype isn’t that it is wrong but that it is incomplete.


In education, we hear many labels used everyday. Some of the many I hear to describe students are:

-Special Education

-Highly Capable

-English Language Learner

-Low income

-Reference to race (i.e. Asian, Somali, etc.)

-Low/high students



The list goes on…


In listening to conversations, I suddenly had an epiphany. The order of our language matters when we are using labels to identify and describe students.  


Take for example the following two ways to talk about a particular student:


A special education student




A student who is serviced by our special education program


For a moment, reflect on how these two statements are the same and how they are different?


Second, analyze what the order of the words tells us about the beliefs of said student?


Generally speaking, what comes first in our language is where we place the most importance or choose to focus on.  Therefore, when referring to a student as a special education student we are classifying this student as an outcast of sorts whereas their special education status is potentially more important that the fact that they are a student.  Thus, in dealing with this student we may change expectations, interactions, etc. based on self-limiting ideas we have about a student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or other labeled area.


Sometimes this can be used to make generalizations about groups of students.  “My ELL learners ….”  This overgeneralization can cause one to label a group of students in such a way that forgoes the differences even within a group who shares a common trait.  It may limit the ways in which differentiation occurs in the classroom for a particular group.


Contrast this with placing “student” at the beginning of our language.  When we say “a student who obtains services through our special education program” we are placing the value on the student first. We thus, see this student as capable of reaching the classroom’s learning expectations and engaging with others in meaningful ways that promote, value and elevate their learning.


In the lab work at our school we have been working on naming with specific language what we see.  Rather than say the “low math student” – we name what the student is struggling with.  For example, we might say “ (insert name) who is still learning how to (insert skill area they are working on) and/or has a misconception around ___________.”  By naming the exact example or information we want to engage with, we are better able to focus on instruction that moves that student further along in their learning trajectory.


In conclusion, If we truly believe that our job is to support and facilitate the learning of all students, we must begin by talking about our children as students first.  Yes, a label may help us to describe that student but limiting them to a label is an incomplete story of who that student is.  We must describe the specifics of a student while prioritizing that all students deserve the right to learn in a culture that has high expectations of them.  We must challenge our own use of language and become aware of how our order prioritizes our focus.  


As a mom to a daughter who had an IEP for two years, I was thankful that her teachers never limited her based on her deficit areas.  I believe that by seeing my daughter Harper, as a student first, who obtained services for her social/emotional development, the school fast tracked her exit of the program.  It is this first-hand experience with an early intervention program focused on eliminating deficit areas through integration, support and high expectations that reminds me that all students can learn when we see them as students first.



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