The Power of Verbal Abuse
Verbal abuse among kids can be common, and when it happens in the classroom between teacher and student, it can lead to serious consequences.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
The old children’s rhyme talks about how kids should not give in to name-calling, taunts, and teasing from their peers. What can come off as seemingly harmless jokes, however, can snowball into a bigger, graver problem—verbal abuse.
What It Is
“Verbal abuse ranges from name-calling and putting others down through words, to more extreme manifestations like swearing and using expletives,” explains Michele Alignay, guidance counselor at Miriam College and consultant at the Love Institute (www.theloveinstitute.com). This type of abusive behavior works primarily with language—using it to significantly lower a person’s self-esteem and emotional well-being.
The scope of verbal abuse can be extensive—from purposeful humiliation to making others feel unloved, from criticizing and ignoring your victim to actual harassment and threats. “The power of words can condition a child, reinforcing negative behavior,” adds Alignay. If a teacher, for example, tells a child he is pasaway, chances are, the student becomes exactly what the teacher says. The student begins to believe what he is called and finds that there is no use in behaving.
“It affects a child’s self-esteem—his self-worth is diminished because of labels placed on him by other people,” she says. “If a teacher calls a student mahina, then he may lose the determination to understand a particular lesson. He might attempt to overcome it, but may not strive to reach beyond his ‘capacity.’” Many children become underdeveloped or do not maximize their potential because of these labels, which result in poor self-esteem and negative opinions of themselves.
“This type of abuse is very dangerous because it does not leave any marks,” says Ina de Vera, currently a primary years teacher at the Beacon School. “Verbal abuse cannot often be picked up on by the child’s family or teachers and has a powerful effect, especially since help is seldom available unless the child learns how to speak up.” She continues to explain that victims often have to deal with multiple emotions—confusion, embarrassment, guilt, inadequacy, anger, and shame.
Verbal Abuse vs. Discipline
Teachers who have not had enough exposure to more modern, progressive methods of teaching and handling students can easily misconstrue verbal abuse as discipline. Scolding and criticizing a student or even an entire class can considerably put them down.
With verbal abuse, the words that are dealt go one way. Discipline, on the other hand, involves communication. “Discipline equals talking about the behavior and its effect without judging or labeling,” says Alignay. Whereas, “You’re so careless—why do you keep making mistakes?” immediately judges the student himself; “I see you weren’t able to pass the test—you know, you’re very good at analyzing problems but maybe you’re becoming confused and that’s why you didn’t follow directions” identifies a strength of the child and turns it into a source of motivation.
“Constructive criticism is what discipline calls for,” she explains. “You need to bank on whatever strength you can find in the student and then note something that he can improve.”
Spotting the Signs
Children can react to verbal abuse in two extremes. One is to completely withdraw, and the other is to act out and verbally abuse others as well. “There are no actual outward signs as in physical abuse,” says de Vera. “Verbal abusers can be cunning with their jokes and withholding of affection—if this happens in the home, then a child may demonstrate an unwillingness to leave school.” Opening a dialogue with your student and establishing that you are a person of authority he can trust is a good way to gauge what is going on in the child’s home.
“A referral system can also be implemented,” adds Alignay. Teachers can do a firsthand screening of the student in question—and if they see that the child’s behavior has roots that go beyond non-academic behavior, they can turn to the guidance department, which can offer counseling.
“There is a critical line between what counselors can and cannot tell their students’ parents,” she says. “As a counselor, if I can see that there is verbal abuse going on at home, I need to offer suggestions and be careful not to provoke parents, who can be defensive about what goes on in the family.” It’s also important to seek the child’s approval—find out if it’s all right with him for you to talk to his parents. “There is confidentiality in counseling—something which can only be broken if a child’s life is threatened.”
“If students are being verbally abused by co-teachers, then this issue can be pointed out immediately during a private moment,” says de Vera. It’s important not to accuse right away, but to gather enough evidence from students in class, as well as from anyone whom you think is affected by the situation. “Inform your colleague that you may have to report the situation to your principal, and waste no time in doing so since such matters are very serious.”
Being aware of what verbal abuse encompasses (labeling, name-calling, comparing, teasing, etc.) can help you keep yourself in check with your own students. Teachers must possess a healthy self-esteem in order to be effective. “Many times, teachers are burned out, drained, and tired—and this can lead to negative ways of dealing with students, such as verbal abuse,” says Alignay.
“It is important to think of the 5As when you reflect on your own self-worth,” she adds, crediting clinical psychologist Dr. Lourdes Carandang for the following:
- Acceptance—Am I accepted for who I am?
- Affection—Do people care about me?
- Attention—Do I matter?
- Affirmation—Am I worthwhile?
- Appreciation—Are my efforts noted?
Securing these 5As can restore a teacher’s self worth, making it easy for her to value her students.
“Remember that discipline means to teach—not punish. Words that hurt your students will not teach them anything except to be hurtful in return,” advises de Vera. “As role models, at least for one school year, teachers must be respectful, kind, patient, and loving. Teaching is not all about the facts, but the values your students can learn from you.”