Empowering Change: A Perspective on Addressing Sensitive Comments in Elementary Schools

Pascal Losambe (November 2023)

In my work as a consultant, my journey often intersects with educators striving to create inclusive and respectful environments in elementary schools. A pressing challenge has emerged: addressing identity-based comments among young students. These comments, often mirroring the negativity seen on social media, impact students across all demographics. The quest for effective solutions has become paramount.

Teachers and I frequently explore crucial questions: How can we make students understand the profound effects of their words? What strategies can prevent recurrence of such behavior? The traditional “carrot and stick” approach—rewarding good behavior and penalizing the bad—has its merits, but my experience in self-determination theory has shifted my focus. I now ask: “What will intrinsically motivate a child to change?”

For instance, when a child uses a racial slur, we address it with age-appropriate consequences, but we go further. In my engagement with the child, we talk about the power of words and their impact. I also introduce the concept of a team, comprising influential figures, teachers, and peers, committed to combating harmful language. I invite the child to join this team, highlighting their unique strengths as potential “superpowers” to aid the team’s mission.

Leveraging Belonging: Belonging is a powerful motivator. I emphasize to the child their role in this diverse team, asking them to envision contributing positively. This promotes not only a sense of belonging but also responsibility towards others.

Encouraging Autonomy and Competence: Next, I focus on autonomy by inviting the child to suggest how they might use their strengths to support the team’s goals. This empowers them, making them active participants in change. Additionally, I foster competence by providing examples of navigating complex social situations, further equipping them with the skills to make better choices.

This method has shown promising results in motivating behavioral change. It moves beyond punitive measures, instead fostering a sense of belonging, autonomy, and competence in young students. As we continue to grapple with the challenges of a digital age, it’s crucial that our strategies evolve to effectively guide our youth towards a more understanding and respectful society.