The liberty of the child should have as its limit the collective interest; as its form, what we universally consider good (behavior). ~ Maria Montessori
How do I address profanity? It’s been rampant in my classroom this year. Some children are bringing it to school from home, and some are bringing it from school to home. The language is harsh and children are getting their feelings hurt.
Lei had had enough. Milo yelled at Kyrie, “You stupid a##” when Kylie accidentally stepped on his work. Milo was 5. Lei took him by the hand and led him to the bathroom. She said, “That is bathroom talk. If you want to use bathroom words, then you may use them in the bathroom.” Milo went into the bathroom, and Lei shut the door. Lei went to finish her lesson with another child, and a moment later, the room reverberated with Milo’s voice, permeating the bathroom door, “A##, A##, A##, A##…!!!” and so on.
Somehow these moments never make it onto the promo video on the school website , but they are real, nonetheless. Milo was a younger student, and his swearing stood out because it is less the norm in Primary classroom, even though it does happen. Elementary and Adolescent students are much more likely to use inappropriate language. It is an age-appropriate misbehavior. They hear it from their friends, from other children in after-school activities, in the media, and in their homes sometimes (those of us who are parents know that we make mistakes here, sometimes). Most children will experiment with swearing at some point.
Although, “foul language” is a common misbehavior, it can be hurtful. It also has power. Consider how adults and other children react when someone in the classroom swears. Profanity can be used by children garner attention, invite power struggles, to get even, or to give up (see a discussion on Mistaken Goals of misbehavior in Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom, chapter 3), especially if adults give it power through their reactions.
A sign that I saw posted many years ago said, “Absence of profanity will offend no one.” How true! But children aren’t born with social skills. Respectful communication skills need to be taught, and even after they are taught children will continue to make mistakes. Here are some suggestions for addressing the use of profanity in the classroom, and how to help children learn from their mistakes, when they make them.
Considerations for Addressing Profanity
- Class Meetings: At the beginning of the school year, tackle the issue of profanity before it comes up. In Class Meetings discuss the impacts of swearing. “What is swearing/profanity?” “How does it make you feel when someone swears at you, or near you?” “Why might someone use profanity?” “What might happen if people were allowed to swear in our classroom?”
- Class Meetings: Brainstorm, with children, suggestions about how to respond when someone uses profanity. “What could you do to be helpful to others, to yourself, to the person swearing?”
- Class Meetings: Discuss respectful alternatives to swearing. “If you were angry or sad, what could you do instead of using profanity?” “What could you say instead of swearing?”
- Class Meetings: For younger students, consider using a puppet, and let the children know that the puppet or doll has been swearing. Ask them to give the puppet some ideas on what to do instead.
- The Power of Silence: When a child uses profanity, simply respond with, “I notice that you used profanity.” Then, remain present, warm and silent (PWS) and do not respond to any objections or excuses. Simply smile knowingly and stay silent until the child self-corrects. When they do, thank them for their cooperation.
- Do Nothing: That’s right, do nothing. But, notice, and let the child know that you noticed. Allow the child to self-correct or allow another child to say something while you remain present, warm and silent (PWS).
- Redirection: Simply ask the child, “Would you please repeat that, respectfully.” Take your sail out of their wind. Do not give the profanity any power.
- Cool Down for the Adult: Model self-respect and self-regulation. Explain that you are angry at the way you were spoken to, and that you don’t want to say anything disrespectful in return. Excuse yourself and let the student know that you will return when you are ready to talk, respectfully. When you are ready, ask the student if they are ready to do the same. Then address the issue at hand and problem-solve together.
- Cool Down for the Student: If a child swears out of anger. Ask them, “Would you like to use the Cool Down Space (Positive Time-Out)? It seems like you’re really angry (or sad, hurt, etc.).” When they have cooled down, then address the swearing. “It is OK to be angry. It is not OK to use profanity in our classroom.”
- Problem-Solve: For an individual student who is engaging in ongoing use of profanity, take time to have a private conversation and do some problem-solving together. “What could you do or say instead?” “If you do swear, how can you fix it?” “How can I help?” (see chapter 8 in Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom).
At the suggestion of a colleague, Lei began to observe Milo. She noticed that Milo swore at other children when he was angry or frustrated. One afternoon during outside time, Jayden, a friend of Milo’s, came to Lei to tell her that Milo swore at him for playing a game wrong. Lei asked Jayden if he wanted help speaking to Milo, or if he wanted to put the problem on the Class Meeting agenda. Jayden chose to put his problem on the agenda.
The next day at the Class Meeting, Jayden shared that he had been sworn at and wanted some help from the group. It had happened at school, and on his soccer team. The class discussed how using profanity affects people. Many of the students also shared that they had made the mistake of swearing too. After everyone had had a chance to share, Lei and her students brainstormed ideas on what someone could do they were sworn at, and what someone could say or do instead of swearing. She asked Jayden if he would like to choose one of the suggestions for what to do if someone swears at you. He chose “Ask them, in private, not to swear at you.” She then asked the class if they would like to try one suggestion for an alternative to profanity to practice for the week. The class chose to practice “Bugs and Wishes” language as a way to communicate frustration and focus on solutions (e.g. “I don’t like it when you push me, and I you would please wait your turn.). While Milo was quiet most of the meeting, he observed keenly. As the weeks progressed, Milo’s swearing became less as Jayden, and other children, set limits with him respectfully, which they learned to do at the Class Meeting.
Until next time…
Source: Nelsen, Jane, and Chip DeLorenzo. Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom: Preparing an Environment That Fosters Respect, Kindness and Responsibility. USA, Parent Child Press, 2021