Teaching the Power of Language

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By Kristy Trautmann

The first day of school is an important milestone every year: new grade, new teachers, new peers, maybe a new school or going off to college. Regardless of age, it is normal for young people to try on the new maturity gained during summer break, experiment with new ways of behaving and to sometimes test the limits. It’s a particularly important time to be on the lookout for problematic behavior before it becomes ingrained.

Research tells us that the peer environment is one of the strongest influences over a young person’s behavior. We also know that language is powerful in shaping attitudes, and that attitudes can impact actions. One very common and problematic behavior in schools is the widespread use of homophobic slurs by kids to tease others or communicate that a behavior, clothing choice, or way of being is bad or wrong. An individual child may use those terms with no malicious intent, to fit in with others or without even thinking about what the words mean. “Everyone says those words,” they might argue. But, regardless of intent, homophobic name-calling is a form of sexual harassment.

Research shows that this kind of sexual harassment is common, and that while most kids brush it off or treat it as a joke, many are troubled and upset by it. When adults allow this kind of language to be part of school culture, it can contribute to a hostile environment; this in turn increases the likelihood that behaviors will escalate to include more targeted harassment. It also discourages students from reporting or reaching out to adults for help.

If we are truly committed to preventing sexual and domestic violence, we need to be willing to intervene early. So, the next time you hear a young person in your life use disparaging language, stop them. Ask them what they mean by the comment. Explain why it is not acceptable to use words in a disrespectful way and be clear that you won’t tolerate it. Young people look to us for guidance, even if they roll their eyes when we provide it. Let’s seize this opportunity to start the school year on a positive note and nip harassment in the bud. Prevention is a series of small, everyday actions just like this.

Kristy Trautmann is executive director of FISA Foundation. 

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