Monday, December 14, 2015

The Power of a Teacher's Words

I got to spend some time this past weekend with a friend who has a four-year old daughter. She was talking about the difficulty of getting her daughter to try certain foods (I could certainly relate to this. I’ve got two daughters who don’t eat peanut butter!) 

She shared a story about taking her daughter to her husband’s parents’ house where she would be having lunch.  When they arrived, my friend’s daughter sat down to eat her sandwich. My friend’s husband asked his mom if there were any chips that his daughter could have with her sandwich. His mom replied that they had sour cream and onion chips, and when she said that, my friend’s husband said, “She’s not going to like those.” 

After that, my friend’s mother-in-law asked the little girl if she would like some chips, and she replied, “I don’t like those.” My friend was frustrated because her daughter was not open to trying new foods, and she was frustrated because she felt like her husband had planted an idea in their daughter’s mind that she wouldn’t like the chips even though she hadn’t tried them. 

It got me thinking about the power of suggestion and the power of words, especially to a child. As adults, we are usually more open to trying new things and forming our own opinions based on our personal experience. The power of suggestion is real, and it affects us at all ages. 

Have you heard, “No one in our family is good at math,” or “Diets never work,” or “This lucky rabbit’s foot will bring you good luck (in your interview, in the game, etc.)”? Words like these shape our actions, reactions, and perceptions about situations. They also remind us of our limitations. We tend to focus on those more than what we CAN accomplish. 

What about students? Do you think they’ve heard these before?
“You always forget your homework.” 
“This test will be the hardest of the year.” 
“You’ll never get to college at this rate.” 
“You’re either good at math or writing.” 
“Students these days just don’t read.” 
“I don’t think you even care.”
Students’ reaction to these statements may be more subtle than my friend’s daughter who outright agreed with her dad that she didn’t like the chips even though she hadn’t tried them. Students internalize their feelings and responses, all while creating expectations about outcomes. Students may consciously or unconsciously behave in ways that cause the statements to come to fruition. 

Psychological research scientists Maryanne Garry, Irving Kirsch, and Robert Michael found that, “the effects of suggestion are wider and often more surprising than many people might otherwise think … [with] real life implications. They added:  If we can harness the power of suggestion, we can improve people’s lives.”

Imagine if the only messages students heard from teachers were
“You can do this.” 
“Some of you may find the test hard; some of you may find it easy. I will do my best to help you prepare to be as successful as possible.” 
“I want to help you get to college. Let’s try this.” 
“Some of the best writers are engineers.” 
“Here’s a reading assignment that I think you’ll like.” 
"I expect better."

Teachers with a growth mindset don’t take failures personally and believe that there is room for improvement. Teachers with this mindset also believe that they can influence students in a positive way.  Let’s all be cognizant of the words we say (and don’t say) to each other and students.

R. B. Michael, M. Garry and I. Kirsch, Suggestion, Cognition, and Behavior, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol.21(3), pp.151–156, 2012


  1. Jennifer,

    Great post! We are really focusing on a growth mindset at our building and district and it's so nice to hear teachers using the positive growth language. Students notice so much, we need to be sure the influence we make is a positive one!

  2. It is the duty of the parents as well as teachers to develop the positive things among children. So that they can easily develop their way of thinking and attitude to deal with different issues. Most probably We should play a role model for kids to develop their personality and thoughts. Here from this article also, we learn some basic things about how to improve our thinking, attitude, and personality in a positive way. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful experience.