Recognizing and Addressing Harmful Language Part 2: The School Edition

Last year we released our first article– a collaboration between Due East Educational Equity Collaborative and Sourcewell called Recognizing and Addressing Harmful Language — which helped us think through language choices connected to race, gender and relationships, social constructs and the white racial frame. This article focused on recognizing the impact of the words we choose. Our first collaboration was a start to recognizing common harmful phrases that we should stop using, as well as language swaps we should use instead. In the first article, some of the phrases and swaps were connected to a school setting, but many applied to broader societal concepts.  In Recognizing and Addressing Harmful Language Part 2:  The School Edition, we focus the discussion on harmful language that is commonly used in school settings, addressing the exchange of language and concepts among educators and with students and families.

Language is powerful! Schools are profoundly influential in the development of young people.  The language we use in schools has the power to impact and shape whole generations.  Think back to the last time a teacher complimented you or cut you down.  It most likely created a feeling, a lasting impression, and it may have even shaped the way you view yourself.  Educators hold influence, authority, and power. Our words carry tremendous weight; the power to lift up or tear down.

A story…

I remember as a 6th grader, overhearing my teacher proudly tell her colleague that she had arranged our student groupings so well. “Look at this!  I have 6 kids that passed this (advanced) test, and I have one of each of these six kids in every student pod.  I wanted a little starch in each group and look at this!” I had passed that test.  Did this mean I was the “starch” in my student pod?  (Whatever that meant.) Did this mean I was a leader?  That I was smart?  I wasn’t completely sure, but based on how my teacher was talking, I knew it was a good thing.  It positively shaped the way I thought of myself moving forward, all because of one (most likely biased) advanced test I had taken.  But imagine another classmate overhearing this same conversation and knowing they were not one of the 6 that passed the test.  How would this child interpret this overheard conversation:  I’m not smart?  I’m not a leader? I’m not…. starchy?

The language and words we choose to use in schools not only have power but can show up in a variety of ways.  Sometimes the language is direct and blatantly harmful.  One student shared with us a time when he was asked to stand up in front of his middle school class.  The teacher asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up and he answered, “finish high school and go to college.”  His teacher let out a loud laugh,  “College! Ha!  You’ll be lucky if you even graduate high school!”

This is overtly harmful and damaging, but sometimes school language is more coded, more subtle, and has dangerous undertones.  Like the child that is very “spirited/not living up to their potential” or those “low babies” that are just breaking your heart; if only you could “take them home [with you] and raise them [yourself].”

Another story…

I knew my son was brilliant, creative, thoughtful, and outgoing. But I always dreaded parent/teacher conferences. My son was tall for his age (6’2” at twelve years old) and a Black male student in a school that had cemented biases against him. Every parent/teacher conference was heavy with words and phrases that devalued his learning style or contributions to the classroom.  I was told more times than I can remember that he was an “underachiever,” a “blurter,” and a “roamer” which I imagine meant he did not stay in his chair. I never left these conversations with an understanding of my son’s strengths or contributions to the classroom, although I knew he had many. My son was always sullen at his parent teacher/conferences and by middle school refused to attend with me.


This blog post is dedicated to recognizing, examining, and addressing harmful language in schools, both overt and covert. We interviewed educators to ask them the most common harmful language they hear. Based on feedback from educators across the education spectrum, we sorted common school-based harmful language into four categories: words that divide and stratify students, words that negatively label students, words that negatively label families, and words that reinforce dominant cultural norms, addressing how and why these are problematic as well as ways to respond when you hear them.


Words that divide and stratify students

It’s safe to say we’ve all heard or even said something along the lines of, “my low kids” or “my high flyers” while discussing different groups of students and their achievement.  Do any of these academic labels look familiar to you?

  • Low kids, low students, low achievers, low babies
  • Struggling students, at-risk students
  • High flyers, high achievers, high students, gifted students

Sometimes educators even get creative and color code, my “red kids and my green kids,” but we know what this really boils down to and so do our students.  Educators also have language that names various categories of those kids including “EL Students,” “Spec. Ed Students,” “apartment kids,” “the east hallway” to identify certain groups of students, usually ones with whom the teacher is struggling to connect. But how am I supposed to talk about my students if I cannot label and group them? Many educators report these types of labels are an efficient, quick, and easy way to group and talk about students. But when we fall into these language habits, we are unconsciously revealing to ourselves, our colleagues, and our students the  levels of expectation we hold for student achievement. We are also revealing our limited ability to see students as whole and unique young people. Many of these divisive and stratifying labels are infused with bias and racism. Additionally, research shows that what teachers believe about student success has a direct impact on students’ academic growth[1]. And finally, ALL students are gifted and talented in a variety of ways.

Who gets to determine the criteria for these labels?  What biases are present in stratifying students? How does grouping our students reinforce racism and inequity? Are we identifying the gifts of all of our students?


Words that negatively label individual students

personality, cognitive and behavioral labels

How many times have you been in a conversation with other educators (or even in conversation with yourself in your head) and heard a certain student negatively labeled? Sometimes that label comes with a “look” or a “nod” between staff that indicates to colleagues a collective opinion about an individual student.  How many times have you been reading or completing school-based student information forms (IEP’s or discipline referrals for example) and seen students negatively labeled? Students are routinely labeled for their personality like “she is bossy,” labeled for their cognitive style or academic progress like “he is a struggling learner,” or labeled for perceived behaviors like “she is disrespectful.” Negatively labeling our students positions educators as victims, righteous, or judgmental and hinders deep and effective relationships with our students. Students are very aware of the labels we use and either internalize those labels (adding to negative self-perception) or instinctually reject the labels and the adults who apply them– often leading to a disconnection from school. Some common negative labels and words placed on students include:

  • All the “D” labels: Disengaged, Defiant, Disrespectful, Disruptive, Difficult, Distracted
  • Cognitive or academic labels: struggling learner, not proficient, slow processor, at-risk
  • Engagement and motivation labels: unmotivated, lazy, irresponsible, underachiever, daydreamer
  • Personality and communication labels: blurter, bossy, stubborn, chatty, busy body

Similar to words that divide and stratify students, words that negatively label individual students are deeply hurtful and reflective of our levels of expectation for student achievement. These words also reveal our limited ability to see students as whole and unique young people and are infused with bias and racism.

What are the criteria for these types of labels?  What biases are present when labeling individual students? How does labeling our students reinforce racism and inequity? Are we valuing the voice and gifts of our students?


Words that negatively impact families

“I just wish I could take them all home and raise them myself.”  We’ve heard this phrase in more than one school, in more than one district, and in more than one state. And while the intentions behind this phrase may be good, the impact is harmful.  What do we really mean when we say things like this?  That our families are better?  Healthier?  Preferred?  How many of these phrases sound familiar?

  • Broken homes, dysfunctional homes, unstable homes, chaotic homes, unhealthy environment
  • Limited family resources, unavailable parents, disadvantaged students
  • Trauma-informed (when it means irreparably broken), toxic environment

What about when the label “broken home” is assigned to a single parent raising their children?  Or when the label “chaotic home” is given to the multigenerational family unit?  What makes us think that the family or culture to which our students belong is less than, or inferior to something we could offer? Or to their time at school?

We need to be self-reflective about what we mean and the impact we have when we use these phrases.  Sure, there are circumstances when extra support and a trauma-informed lens is needed; addiction, abuse, homelessness are all real.  But it is not our role nor right to be in judgement, viewing students or their families and caregivers as damaged beyond repair. These judgements are also often infused with bias, classism, and racism. No, these labels are not caring. Caring is fulfilling our responsibility to educate students in collaboration with their families—the most important people in their lives.

Whose criteria are we using when we judge families and communities?  What biases are present in these labels? How does judging students’ families and communities contribute to racism and inequity?


Words that reinforce dominant cultural norms

power and privilege inequities

Schools are also infused with language that reinforces and prioritizes dominant cultural norms. This language de-values the differences in experiences, goals, values, and behaviors that our students bring with them to their learning and prioritizes compliance with established dominant norms. By reinforcing dominant cultural norms and assumptions, we maintain existing power and privilege stratifications. These normative references are almost always connected to whiteness and power. When we reinforce dominant cultural norms we reinforce racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, xenophobia—all the oppressive ideologies. Some of the language we use in schools that contributes to reinforcing dominant cultural norms include:

  • healthy behavior, positive environment, classroom citizenship, respect, consequences, accountability
  • college and career ready, professionalism, timely, organized,
  • achievement gap, higher order thinking, articulate, rigor, grit, disciplined, gifted and talented.

Recognize and de-center whiteness or any other dominant cultural norm as the only way of operating.  Eliminate any qualifiers that indicate there is an “ideal,” “preferred,” or “right” way to learn and be.  Look for ways to be inclusive of multiple ways of being. For example, do we want our students to be “college- and career-ready”? Or are we assisting them with tapping into and leveraging their passions, power, and purpose? Are we encouraging students to recognize gifts in each other and build community or are they just climbing the college- and career-ready ladder? Additionally, using the label “achievement gap” fails to recognize how layered and complex that concept is.  An opportunity gap or an access gap is a much more accurate reflection of the disparities we see, rather than holding comparative measures of academic achievement in comparison to one group of students (usually white) or to one biased/racist standardized test.

What criteria are we using when we connect to cultural norms?  What biases are present in these cultural norms? How do dominant cultural norms contribute to racism and inequity?


Reframing and Reforming

What do we really mean when we say these things as educators?  What is the intention behind these words?  What does this reveal about our true beliefs connected to students’ cognitive levels, creativity, passions, morality, humanity?

Grouping and labeling students does not take into consideration students as individuals, or the complexity of school systems.  Traditional school structures (including curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices) were designed for a narrow purpose and a narrow group of students, often perpetuating biased and racist assumptions and practices.  When we label students, we are not acknowledging the biases that we bring as teachers, influencing the ways we instruct and interact with students.  When we label students, we are not acknowledging the multitude of gifts and talents each child brings with them each day that may or may not match up with our skills and abilities as educators.


Solutions and Approaches

  1. Broaden your circle and experiences. Biased language is often an indicator of limited experience and exposure. Connect with a broader array of students and families. Build relationships with people who see the world differently than you do. Listen to the opinions and perspectives of others.
  2. Apologize for your impact. Listen to the feedback of others if they tell you that the language you are using is divisive or harmful. Even if that was not your intent, apologize and shift your language to more respectful and appreciative expressions.
  3. Redirect yourself when you catch harmful language. Check in with yourself. What are your true intentions? Are they to encourage and connect? Or to complain, control or reprimand? Be honest about where your language is coming from and redirect yourself when you know your intentions are less than positive.
  4. Use strength-based language and identifiers. Hold all people in high regard no matter what. Assume best intentions and highest possibilities. Maybe that student isn’t defiant, maybe they are frustrated and trying hard to learn a difficult concept.
  5. Have courageous conversations with colleagues. When you hear colleagues use harmful language, encourage them to apply approaches 1-4 above. Highlight for them the impact of their language and your unwillingness to engage in those types of conversations. You can find additional ideas for how to have courageous conversations with your colleagues here.
  6. Allow students and families to self-define. Have structured ways for students and families to tell you about themselves. Use welcome sheets, get-to-know-you cards, conferences, student autobiographies, and inquiry-grounded relationships with students and families. When they tell you who they are and what their gifts and strengths are, appreciate, honor, and respect that self-definition.
  7. Make systemic shifts. Advocate for practices, policies, and procedures that are anti-bias and anti-racist. Assess student- and family- facing documents/communication for deficit ideology and harmful language. Create protocols for developing new student- and family- facing documents/communication. Make sure there is broad input from stakeholders when vetting or creating communication materials.

Educators committed to expanding educational equity and the success and belonging of all students must break solidarity when we find ourselves in toxic school cultures that are engaging in obvious and blatant harmful language towards children or families. We must recognize and uncover the potentially subconscious bias or racism that is connected to phrases that are commonplace at staff meetings, with colleagues, in our classroom, and even within our own thoughts. Now that we’ve identified words that divide and stratify students, words that negatively label students, words that negatively label families, and words that reinforce dominant cultural norms, it is your responsibility to shift the language, expectations and culture within your sphere of influence—including your own thinking.


Reflection Questions:

  • Do any of these phrases or words sound familiar? Have you heard them in your school? Are any of them commonplace? How do you respond when you hear them? How does the school community respond?
  • Have you ever been told by a student, family or colleague that your language was harmful? Have you ever identified harmful language you were using on your own? How did it feel to know you’ve hurt someone with your words? How did you respond and/or shift?
  • Have you noticed the impact of harmful school-based language for your students? What do you think is the impact on their learning? On their sense of self? On their feelings of belonging? How would student experiences and outcomes change if we held ourselves to only using encouraging and empowering language?
  • Which of the solutions and approaches are you already utilizing? Which should you add to your practice? How do you think that will change your experience as an educator?
  • With whom do you need to have a conversation about harmful language? What do you want to share with them?




[1] In his meta-analysis, John Hattie (2018) lists “Teacher Estimates of Achievement” as having an effect size on learning of 1.29, ranking 3rd out of 252 influences on student achievement.  An effect size of .4 indicates 1 years’ worth of growth for students.