When our children are small, we encourage and treasure each milestone on their path to self-awareness and growth. We use positive language, “You can do it!” and, “Awesome!” letting them know we’re excited and believe in their ability to access each new skill.
At Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem, Program Director, Marci Tirschwell notes, “give yourself and others a needed pat on the back,” with language that always presumes competence and encourages success.
Positive language encourages and stimulates us all. In early childhood, we help children access their new skills in a host of ways, from aiding them physically – picture yourself holding a toddler by the arms and cheering their success as they practice walking – to reading books and singing songs about different life-activities like toileting, getting dressed independently, and learning one’s ABC’s.
When training staff for Camp Shutaf, we always ask the staff, “does my language create positive feelings and expectations for everyone?”
And then we become fearful – the cheering crowd quiets down – and our children, and the children we teach and serve, learn to fear failure. Especially in young adulthood, when we should encourage teens and young people to take risks and reach for the stars, we often change our tune and our positive attitude, and we talk about failure. We forget that only moments ago, we said, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”
Labels, language, and the descriptive terms we use to describe difference and challenge, or just how we talk about each other, allow us, along with the system’s rules and the children we serve, confine us. “Color in the lines,” “Get good grades,” “Behave in school,” are one-liners that squelch choices, creativity, and ‘out of the box’ thinking. For children and teens with varied disabilities, their choices are even further reduced and their creativity further confined. Most have been made to understand – via labels and language – that they’re limited, that failure is presumed for them – in the present and future – , and that they just can’t do what others do.
Rethink your use of words and labels, like high or low functioning, terms that do not describe a person’s qualities in a ‘holistic’ and positive fashion. At Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem, we always advocate for respectful language that doesn’t encourage stereotypes, like, “he’s 20 years old, but he’s cognitively a 5-year old.”
Fear of failure, translates – especially in the case of disability – to fewer choices, less sophisticated thinking, and limited opportunity. Maybe we’ve just never tried that new and yet unaccessed skill, or had an adaptive approach offered to us that suddenly made it all possible.
Be a positive and empowering thinker with respectful, active, and accommodating language. Create new possibilities for yourself and others.