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Nuance: The Power of Positive Phrasing

By: Sixth Grade Teacher Jordan Andes

April 8, 2020

When I was 12, I had a piano teacher named Ruth who did something curious. I loved playing music by ear and was developing a patience for reading music, but I had yet to begin appreciating technique. I didn’t want to practice scales and consider the angle of my wrist. I wanted to play the Maple Leaf Rag as fast (and sloppily) as I could. But she was wise and she could tell I simply didn’t understand the value of holding my hand at a precise angle, letting my wrist drive my fingers up the scale. 

Discovering a Difference

So one lesson, she didn’t take her usual seat in the wicker chair next to me. She dragged her chair away from the piano and asked me to simply play scales, alternating between the way I liked to play and my impression of what she was trying to teach me. She sat across the room, head back and eyes closed, listening. I played for twenty seconds, “There it is.” Fifteen seconds went by, “That was it.” Five seconds, “Yes, that’s it.” 

She was right every time. She correctly identified when I had tried her technique. She proved to me that there was a difference, one that you could hear and feel. The smallest change of lifting my hand fifteen degrees produced a different sound when I pressed the keys. 

Ruth helped me discover nuance, a concept that continues to bring me joy. Some may discover nuance when they adjust their grip on a golf club or tennis racquet, moving their palm just a few centimeters higher. Or maybe nuance reveals itself when one adds a pinch of an unusual spice to a recipe and it transforms the flavor.

Nuance is a subtle difference that has a significant impact. The mechanics of nuance often go unnoticed without a measure of mindfulness, but the subliminal impact colors our experiences. As a teacher, I believe that the words we use when we talk to students hold the power of nuance.

Positively Phrased Directions

Responsive Classroom, a student-centered and social emotional approach to learning, has conducted extensive research and written at length about the Power of Words. I have been fortunate to study with the organization, whose beliefs and principles often compliment our mission at Rossman School. For now, I want to borrow from their emphasis on teacher language and highlight positive phrasing, just one of the ways in which nuanced language can be used to nurture.

As students continue developing skills like self-regulation and executive functioning, it is necessary to give directions and reminders in order to maintain a structured, safe environment in which they can grow and take steps towards independence. Intentional direction allows adults to provide children with “wise external control that keeps them on track,” even when their self-control starts to wane (Denton). 

This time of year, as the weather gets warmer and energy levels begin to buzz, one commonly needed direction might sound like, “Don’t run.” 

However, what if you replace the negatively phrased direction “Don’t run” with the positive, “Walk”? Or how about “Stop talking” versus “Listen”? Both directions seem to produce a similar result, but the nuance between the two is tremendous. Positive phrasing offers clarity and conveys belief in the child.

1. Positive phrasing gives children clarity. The negatively phrased, “Stop talking,” actually requires children to process two cues. The first cue is clear: stop talking. The second cue, however, is implied and ambiguous: What should I do instead? Should the child be thinking about a question, waiting for a signal, looking up front, listening to a classmate speak? Children can get lost in the space between what they were doing and what they should be doing if the positive direction is not clear. When you direct a student in what to do, they can immediately get on track.

2. Positive phrasing conveys belief in children and encourages their sense of competence and autonomy. Let’s consider another example. “Don’t forget to turn in your homework.” Even when said with the kindest of intentions, the phrasing is negative. The direction betrays a belief that the child was going to forget without your intervention, and it could even imply that the child may not value the task. Consider a positive alternative. “Remember, completed homework goes in the tray.” The positive phrasing expresses belief in the child, a belief that he wants to “cooperate, listen, and do quality work” (Denton). The positive phrasing also builds a student’s sense of competence and autonomy by naming a task he has the skill and ability to accomplish independently.

When we speak to children, even at times when we have to give directions or reminders, language provides us with the opportunity to use nuance for nurture. As Paula Denton articulates, our language can express our “faith in the goodness of children, a belief in their desire and ability to learn.” In other words, directions do not have to be about maintaining control. Directions provide an opportunity to call students into their growing abilities and show that you believe in them.

A few positively phrased directions and reminders to consider:

Instead of...


“Don’t make a mess.”

“No talking right now.”

“Don’t bother your sister.”

“I’m not going to remind you again.”

“Clean up when you’re finished.”

“It’s time to work quietly.”

“Respect her space.”

“Remember what I asked.”



Rossman School, nestled on a 20-acre campus in Creve Coeur, is an independent private preparatory school for students in Junior Kindergarten (four years old) through Grade 6. The school’s mission is to provide a strong, well-balanced education in a nurturing school community committed to excellence. Dedicated to developing personal, nurturing relationships with each child, Rossman’s experienced educators provide a solid foundation in academics, athletics and arts while emphasizing strong character development and leadership skills.​ Request a free Rossman School brochure here.

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