Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver
Profanity has become increasingly common in children's everyday language -- no doubt reflecting the frequency with which they hear foul language in the media, as well as in the casual conversations of adults. The commonplace use of profanity in adult society, however, does not mean that you have to tolerate its use by your students.
Students use profanity for a variety of reasons. Some swear to gain the attention of their teacher or classmates. Some swear to impress their peers. Some swear to express strong emotions, such as anger, distress, or frustration. And some swear to attack someone who has hurt them. Identifying the underlying reason for a student's use of profanity can allow you to respond more effectively.
Do not ignore a student's profanity. Failing to respond may convey to your students that swearing is acceptable. Confronting the use of profanity also is important because some students swear so often they might not realize that their language was inappropriate. You should address the issue of swearing even if you are not certain who made the inappropriate comments. If that happens, do not dwell on the problem and do not ask students for help identifying the culprit. Rather, let your class know that that kind of language is unacceptable; perhaps saying, "I expect students in this class to talk respectfully to one another." Then return to your lesson.
React calmly to foul language. If you perceive that a student is swearing to get your attention or to upset you, react in a low-key, restrained manner. Focusing on the student or getting upset yourself will give the student the attention he is seeking and reinforce his impulse to swear. Instead, let him know in a calm, brief manner that his language is unacceptable and that there are more appropriate ways to get your attention. If you give consequences, do so matter-of-factly. Avoid lecturing or justifying your decision.
Bear in mind that a young student might not realize the inappropriateness of his language. A student may tell you that he thought the words were okay because he heard them used by his parents or friends or on television. If that is the case with one of your students, you might say to him: "I understand that you may have heard others use these words but they are not okay to use in school." Let him know that the words can hurt others' feelings and cause classmates to avoid him. Make sure he understands which words are objectionable.
Teach the student who swears words he can substitute for the swear words. Help him find inoffensive words or phrases he can use when he is frustrated or upset. The student might have some ideas of his own, or you might suggest some words, such as "darn" or "shoot." He may even be open to using nonsense words. If appropriate, suggest to the student that he express his distress or frustration by putting his thoughts in a journal or writing a letter.
Consider a mild consequence. You might establish a rule that students who swear will lose five minutes of recess for every incident. With younger students who need an immediate consequence, consider giving them a brief time out, explaining that students cannot remain with their classmates if they use inappropriate language.
If swearing persists, inform the student's parents. After the first offense, have the student write down exactly what he said and why he used that language. You also might add comments of your own. Place the paper in an envelope and have the student address it to his parents. Put it in your desk and tell the student that you will send it to his parents if he swears again.
Arrange a signal to remind the student about his language. Agree on a silent signal (for example, putting a finger to your lips) that you will give when the student uses profane or inappropriate language. Tell him that you expect him to stop the profanity immediately when he sees that signal.
I have the pleasure of teaching lots and lots of extremely nice students. In my classroom they are smart, respectful, and mature. In some ways, I like being around them more than I like being around adults. Then, out of nowhere, when I’m walking down the hallway, I hear, “What the F---!” or “You’re full of S---!” and I turn to see one of my dear, beloved gems speaking these obscenities.
More commonly I overhear other students whom I don’t know uttering this foul language in school. What do I do? What can we, as teachers, do to curb this distasteful language habit?
For starters, there should be some policy in your school about what language is acceptable and what language is not. While many specific rules exist relating to bullying and disrespectful language, districts do not often have spelled out specifics related to foul language and obscenities. One of the things you should make sure you understand is what exactly your administration’s stance on foul language in school is. To what extent is it expected of you to reprimand students, and how much support would you receive were you to initiate discipline?
Beyond the standards laid out by school policy, consider what standards you personally demand from the students in your classroom. You must ensure that you have clear classroom rules and consequences related to language. If you do hear students using obscenities, a clear and reasonable system of discipline needs to be enforced. The system of discipline should be a lot like how you approach any unacceptable behavior:
- Set language expectations early on in the year.
- Warn students the first time you do hear them saying anything inappropriate.
- Deliver a consequence immediately after they utter foul language after they’ve been warned.
- Follow up with them after their consequence to reinforce your expectations.
- Give sterner consequences and further follow up should they continue to break rules.
That might be good enough for your classroom, but what should we do in the hallways when students we don’t even know use this objectionable language?
Our options are admittedly fewer here, considering that if we’re in the hallways, that usually means that we’re on our way somewhere and have little time to address a language issue. That’s why many teachers admit that they ignore foul language, pretending that they didn’t hear it and move on. This, you may imagine, is certainly no way to curb the trend. Students may end up feeling encouraged to speak in such ways if they notice that teachers do not correct them.
Swearing is hardly something administrators want students brought down to the office for, and rarely a strong enough offense that warrants detentions or other formal consequences.
Teachers’ options are limited, but perhaps we don’t need many options at all. The best thing a teacher can do is approach the swearing student and state, with firmness and respect, that those words are not allowed to be used in school.
Sure, the student might say “OK” and then ignore your instructions, but you are playing your part in reinforcing the high standard of language that an academic institution insists upon. If you encounter the student in the future using the same language, perhaps sterner consequences could be considered; but the first and most powerful thing a teacher can do is simply remind students of the standard they are expected to adhere to. When teachers speak up, those students become more conscious of their own behavior.
If one teacher stops and says something to a student in the classroom or the hallway, then that one teacher has played their part toward better serving their school community in limiting poor language used. However, think about what your school would be like if every adult prowling the halls – from teachers to administrators to janitors to hall monitors – were to take a stand against swearing. Perhaps the most powerful way to curb the negative trends of student language is to create a culture of positive language usage. When students see that all the adults stand as a united front in setting a high standard, then this will undoubtedly greatly diminish the frequency of those unwelcome cusswords.
What rules and behaviors has your school implemented to impact the frequency of swearing? Has anything worked? Do you feel like you’re fighting a lonely, uphill battle?
Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com.