The Words We Use Make a Difference
“He does what I ask him to do when he wants to.”
“He knows what to do but chooses not to.”
What do those statements have in common?
They make an assumption that the individual in question is making a willful choice. How does that assumption help describe what’s really behind that pattern of seemingly uncooperative behavior?
The truth is, we don’t know by watching a person whether our assumptions about his motivations are accurate or not.
The words we use make a difference in how we interpret behavior.
Maybe the child fails to respond to our directions consistently because we are not taking into consideration that child’s need to shift his focus from his internal agenda to the agenda of others.
I interviewed a nine year old recently who was passionate about fossils. He told me that many fossils are amazing; especially bivalve fossils from the Cambrian period that can be found embedded in rocks.
His teacher reported that he only does what she tells him to do “when he wants to.” She is frustrated because when she asks him what he is supposed to be doing he tells her the correct answer. So she makes the assumption that he is uncooperative and chooses not to.
The behavior management choices for this line of thinking usually focus on establishing consequences instead of engineering the environment to provide visually predictable signals.
When we evaluate children for suspected forms of autism, part of the job is to use descriptive language that helps teachers and parents understand why the child behaves in difficult ways.
Going back to the budding Paleontologist, once I learned the extent to which he was captured by his internal world, I was able to talk with the teacher about how much effort it takes this child to stay connected with the flow of events in the classroom.
The teacher’s response was to visibly become energized, in contrast to her rather discouraged posture when she was describing her frustration about the child’s lack of cooperation.
She made an important connection: the child was most responsive when she stood close to him before speaking and when she could point to written instructions to back up her verbal request. She made the comment: “Even though he knows what to do he does better when he can literally look at the request.”
The reframing of the child’s behavior into descriptive language shifted the conversation to a productive dialogue.
In your discussions with teachers, and with your colleagues as you evaluate children, listen carefully to the language you use. The words you use truly make a difference in how you interpret behavior.
Listen to the children’s interests when you talk with them and then tell their stories. It can make all the difference in the way people view them and the interventions they use to support them.