“It’s Only Words”
Reconsidering How We Speak about Children

Sue Allingham explains why our words matter.

The point of this article is to challenge some commonly used vocabulary from Early Years Education — including the word ‘challenge’ itself. It’s important to be more careful and think about what we are saying, and the implications of it.

With young children, we need to be especially careful about the impact of our word choices, and how they support — or hinder — the work we do in the Early Years.

I have an expression that I often use during training: ‘weasel words.’ These are words and phrases that give the impression of authority, without really offering specific details.

Think of phrases like “some people say,” “most people think,” or “This clearly shows…” These expressions make whatever you say next seem more important. But where does that authority come from? And is it really helping anything?

In the Early Years, ‘weasel words’ appear throughout articles, documents, training sessions and on social media. As they give this impression of authority, they filter into our daily work, and can shape our opinions and bias without us even noticing. When you speak about children, how often have you found yourself using a word like ‘differentiation’ or a phrase such ‘below expectations’?

If we aren’t cautious with our words, we run the risk of forming some unhelpful habits and assumptions in the ways we care for children.

How weasel words lead us to label children

To demonstrate a weasel word, ‘research says’ that some children are ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘hard to reach’.

To be sure, there is indeed research that states these things. But have we all read and critiqued it? If not, we risk accepting these findings without reflection, perhaps missing important nuance in the research. Whenever we see the word ‘research,’ or other weasel words that reference authority, it’s important to know what that authority is, and who’s responsible for it. It may well be that, whoever is making the point can’t refer to a strong evidence base, and this ‘research’ may be little more than opinion.

Weasel words help certain viewpoints and findings slip into common usage, and it’s easy for us to use them and sound as if we know what we are talking about. But when we do that, we risk making harmful assumptions, or acting without understanding the full picture.

Weasel words can lead us into categorising families and children using the ‘halo and horns’ approach. You can see an example of this in this article in Vogue UK from September. In discussing how children have fared under lockdown, pay attention to how the language frames children from less wealthy backgrounds in a negative light.

Will a child who has been stuck at home while both parents go out to do a low-income shift jobs have any chance of learning equally alongside a child who has spent the last four months being hothoused by a furloughed mum, dad or carer? Will they really have had a poor experience? How do we know? A different experience is not necessarily a poorer one.

As we work with families and form our opinions, we must keep an open mind and not make the sort of sweeping assumption made in the article above.

What happens when weasel words change our thinking?

Labels affect how we teach. This is because our view of the child or family can be subtly skewed by what we are told ‘research says’, so we change our expectations without realising it.

How many times have you heard it said that ‘Boys have poor motor control’ or ‘Children who have free school meals don’t achieve so well’? Is any of that true in your setting? Or are you conditioned to look for that, because weasel words have helped normalise those labels and beliefs?

I’ve observed a boy in a Reception class who was in an ‘intervention group’ to improve his fine motor skills. However, when I saw him with the rest of his class, he was using a hammer and nails with no problem at all. But he just wasn’t ready to transfer these dexterity skills to holding a pencil yet, and wasn’t that interested in writing. In this way he was seen as ‘less able’.

The use of ‘ability group’ labelling, sometimes done under the ‘weasel word’ ‘differentiation’, has an immediate impact on capping learning. I once listened as a child told me that she couldn’t use the resources in the ‘high ability’ water tray, as she “wasn’t in that group and couldn’t do that yet”. I encouraged her anyway, and she was more than capable to explore and experiment. In this example, we see how these labels are weasel words that disable, rather than enable.

Too often planning is done for the ‘higher’, ‘middle’ and ‘low’ ability groups, and this differentiation immediately puts a lid on the expectations for each ‘group’. So how enabling are these words, really?

Not being afraid to challenge and question

I’ve deliberately reiterated the expression ‘research says’ because it is often used to justify practice that we’ve been told to do. For example, some may remember the national drive to do ‘Brain Gym’. Lots of training was available, and we were all encouraged to do a specific set of movements everyday with the children. Whilst the positive effects of exercise and movement are well documented, and this initiative may have had some basis in research somewhere, it’s now well-accepted that Brain Gym was based in pseudoscience. Again, there are kernels of value in it — but that presence of unexamined authority led us to give it more credence than it was due.

Challenging the word ‘challenging’

Words that inadvertently lead us to work in ways that are not helpful, that can cap and undermine real learning must be challenged. Let’s look at the ‘weasel word’ ‘challenge’.

As many return for the autumn term, I’ve seen social media posts about plans for new cohorts. This always happens and some useful discussion can be found. The subject of offering ‘challenge’ often comes up — perhaps you know the rainbow challenge, for example. How do we do this? What does it look like? How do we know if children have completed a ‘challenge’?

Again, it is true that ‘research says’ children learn through challenges. We know that we are meant to be creating an enabling environment, and by definition, it must be one that challenges thinking and offers opportunities. But by offering a series of adult-defined ‘challenges’ the learning is immediately capped and, in the case of the ‘rainbow challenges’, levelled for ‘ability groups’. We create effective and thought-provoking challenges through an environment that encourages shared thinking and discovery. It’s not one where children must complete a number of adult-led ‘challenges’ each day.

I’ve deliberately looked at ‘challenge’ last. If we reflect on the thinking I just shared, then we can put ourselves in the place of the children being given specific, levelled challenges. Remember the little girl in the water tray example. How do you think she felt, confronting those limitations? What did she learn from moving past them? Was it what the adults had intended?

Taking a moment to reflect on our words

The professional words we use frame our practice. And as a result, our vocabulary as Early Years carers shapes our perception of children themselves. This is not intentional, but we must be aware of it and address it. We must reflect on our roles with the children and families, and guard against the use of labels. As we help every child latch on to learning, we need to reflect on our own beliefs and the values we shape over our teaching careers.

Critical reflection is not a comfortable process. Take a step back and observe your environment for a while. What messages are you giving without realising it? Do some peer-on-peer observations. What kind of language is being used? Look at body language and positions in the environment too.

And, when you read an article, in a publication or on social media, or attend a training session, lookout for the vocabulary used. Is it really clear what it means and why it’s being used? Is the author, or speaker, an authority on the subject? Or just using words for effect?

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