Watch your language: The power of positive framing

Watch your language: The power of positive framing
Date15th Mar 2021AuthorKaren FraserCategoriesLeadership, Teaching

How many times over the last few months have we heard the media say that young people have ‘missed so much’, that they are ‘falling behind’ and they ‘need to catch-up’, or that they are likely to ‘fail’…? And then we wonder why our young people are anxious and stressed and that cases of mental ill-health in colleges are rising.

Even pre-Covid, there was plenty of research which talked about using positive language[i][ii] and, particularly in a sixth form setting, how this can promote confidence in both the student and the teacher, influencing results in a positive way. For example, Dr Carol Dweck talks about the ‘Power of Yet[iii]’ i.e a positive mindset in which you believe you can improve – you may not be able to do something yet, but you can do it if you try. The positive mindset suggests that ‘failure’ is just one step in a line of continuous improvement, that praising and coaching is more effective than kicking students while they are down, predicting gloom and doom. In the context of mental health Colleen Vojak comments in the Lancet[iv], “When used indiscriminately, words can create barriers, misconceptions, stereotypes and labels that are difficult to overcome.” 

A couple of years ago at Cirencester, we changed the language we used with those applicants who didn’t get the grades they expected on GCSE results day. Clearly, without the entry grades, they could no longer join the A-level programme, but bearing in mind they had already been knocked back and had potentially suffered disappointed teachers and parents, we changed our language to one of positive progression. We talked to them in the ‘progression hub’ rather than the ‘level two room’, and made it a more positive experience. We developed an Access to A-level programme which was a level ‘2.5’ but gave the perception of being on the way to A-levels (a ‘not yet’ proposition), and we created a longer induction for those who would do a level 2 programme, allowing them more time to reassess the route to their career intention after ‘stumbling’ on results day. With a positive mindset and the can-do attitude now present in these students, we saw improved retention in the first few weeks and better attendance. We retained a higher number over the course of the year and many more progressed to level 3 in their chosen field.

Coming out of the pandemic, we can use this opportunity to apply what we’ve learnt from using positive language, and help our young people to see how they have developed independent learning skills and cultivated significant employability skills such as communication, the use of technology, coping under pressure, and resilience in the face of adversity. Perhaps young people who have been in years 10 to 13 or are currently in university and have stayed the course should have a stamp on their CVs or LinkedIn profiles which says they were tenacious and succeeded in learning through this pandemic.

So, when we are interviewing our applicants for next year, perhaps we should let them know that we are aware that they didn’t have their usual chance to shine in the exam but we will support them to progress to the next level, making them aware of their achievements and choices whatever they might be. We may want to talk about young people being ‘happy’ with their ‘choices’, that they can ‘accept’ their ‘offer’ and, in the summer, if their grades are not what they were expecting, praise them on what they have achieved, that their results are an ‘accomplishment’, that you are ‘pleased’ that they are ‘enthusiastic’ about their ‘next step’ and ‘keen’ to learn. Talk about ‘positive progression’, about what can be done to get them where they want to be; it might be that it takes a little longer but that may just be an extra year in our fabulous institutions.

Similarly, in relation to our existing students, to those who err on the side of realism and can be heard saying ‘You’ll never make the grade if…’, you may want to harness the power of positive messages and help those young people to see how they can succeed – it’ll work wonders for retention and achievement, as it did for our ‘Level 2.5’ students. 

Most of us will have witnessed or experienced how negative comments can hit confidence and conversely, as Dr Dweck says, how the power of ‘not yet’ helps you to understand that you are on a learning curve, giving you a positive pathway to the future. We need to stop using negative phrasing, as it lends itself to self-fulfilling prophecies when we could be helping our young people to see the light at the end of the tunnel and emphasising how they are potentially going to be the most resilient young people for decades.

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