Language and Personal Power: The Five Power Eaters

by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller


Warning: What you are about to read was not taken from your current curriculum guide. It will not be covered on any of the tests state officials deem important. Quite possibly it will not be recommended by and could even be frowned upon by your administration. So what? Do it anyway.

Help your students learn the language of personal power.

If you teach kindergarten, we are talking to you. If you are a football coach, this is for you too. If you teach algebra, social studies, second grade or help students with speech problems, you are part of our intended audience. If you are reading this, guess what? Yep, it's also for you.

Help your students learn the language of personal power.
Language is more than a medium of communication. It is also a medium of perception. The words you choose and the words your students use affect how they perceive the world, help create their beliefs, and ultimately influence their actions. One of your main jobs as a professional educator is to help students learn and use language patterns that add to their confidence, help them take responsibility for their own lives, and increase their sense of personal power.

Begin by teaching your students to eliminate using what we call The Five Power Eaters, the five phrases that eat away at their personal power and leave them feeling impotent and less in control of their own lives. The Five Power Eaters follow.

Power Eater #1: "Makes me" and "made me"

"He made me mad."

"Don't make her feel bad."

"That makes me sad."

"Makes me" is language that helps you to see someone or something else as being in control of your responses to life. Repetitious use of this phrase creates the belief that others are responsible for your reactions. Once you have internalized that belief, your behaviors flow from it. If you believe you are in charge of your emotions and actions, you act in ways that reflect that belief. If you believe others are in charge of those responses, you act in ways that mirror that belief.

Help students rid themselves of Power Eater #1 by eliminating that phrase in your language and in your classroom. Say instead, "I am choosing to be mad," "She may decide to feel bad about that," and "I am sad." The language above helps students own their feelings and behaviors and leaves them with an increased sense of personal power.

Power Eater #2: "Have to/got to/must"

"I have to get this finished."

"I have got to remember this."

"I must call him tonight."

"Have to's" are self-limiting phrases that suggest you have no choice in a situation. That choice of language reinforces a belief that you have no options and leaves you feeling powerless and out of control of your own life. No, your students do not have to do any of those things. They are at choice and can pick any other alternative if they are willing to deal with the resulting outcome.

By helping students eliminate Power Eater #2 from their language patterns you help them reduce anxiety, increase their awareness of the choices they have, and maintain more of their personal power.

Power Eater #3: "I need"

"I need you to sign my eligibility slip."

"I need a turn on the swing."

"I need a break."

We suggest you help students replace "need" with "want" or "desire." "I need" is a whiny phrase. It signals dependency. The more you need something, the more dependent you become. When you are dependent on anything in the outside world, you give your personal power away.

"I want" is a more self-sufficient expression. It signals independence. It is simply an expression of desire with no expectation attached to it. "I want" is direct communication that gives people information about your desires. They are then free to make a response, and that leaves both people with increased personal power.

Power Eater #4: "Should/should have/ought to/ought to have"

"You should have done that when I told you."

"You ought to redo the first paragraph."

"I should do neater work."

It is time to help students learn alternatives to "shoulding" on themselves and each other. It is also time for us to step out of the "should" game as well.

"Should" and "ought to" are thinly disguised ways to get after students, shame them and encourage them to feel bad. The use of those words is an invitation for them to put pressure on themselves and increase their anxiety.

To help students reduce anxiety and pressure help them learn to say "could" instead of "should." "Could" is a word that describes the situation. It implies no evaluation. "I could do neater work" tells what is possible in the here and now. It helps illuminate the choice that is at hand. When you see yourself at choice, you have a greater sense of personal power.

Power Eater #5: "Can't/not able to"

"I can't think of any."

"I'm not able to do that."

"I can't get it done in time."

"I can't" is the predominant self-limiting phrase used in our culture today. It is a clear example of how people limit themselves through their unskillful use of language. Most "I can'ts" are not true. They are a way of talking to ourselves so we don't have to take responsibility for the decisions and choices we make. It is a way of disowning and getting ourselves off the hook. You hear students say "I can't" all the time. It often has a whiny ring to it.

Teach your students to replace "I can'ts" with "don't", "won't", or "choose not to." "I can't think of any" then becomes "I don't think of any," "I won't think of any," or "I choose not to think of any." In each case, one of those will sound more accurate than the others.
When students use the word "can't" they are programming their minds to hold pictures and beliefs of themselves as a person who can't. Every repetition strengthens that belief. Once again, actions, behaviors and choices flow from our beliefs. Help your students become more capable, responsible youngsters by helping them learn alternatives to "can't."

No, teaching The Five Power Eaters won't earn you a lot of strokes with the "up the test score" enthusiasts. No brownie points will come your way from the "school reformer" crowd. But what will most certainly occur is a deep inside satisfaction that you have helped your students learn important pieces of the language of personal power.

Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the coauthors of The Teacher Talk Advantage: Five Voices of Effective Teaching. They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free monthly e-zine for educators and another for parents. To sign up for the newsletters or learn more about the seminars they offer teachers and parents, visit their websites today: and


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