Behaviors are Not a State of Being

by Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller


“She is disorganized."

 “You are a bully.”

“He is lazy.”

“You are a liar.”

If you talk about, or even think about students with words like the examples above, it is time to change your language.  The student who did not tell the truth is not a liar. She is someone who did not tell the truth. More accurately, she is someone who did not tell the truth this time.

When you call her a liar, you label her as “that way.”  You define her with your words and make her behavior seem permanent. When you see her as “that way” you are more likely to expect similar behaviors. Because you unconsciously expect similar behaviors, you are more likely to notice behaviors that fit with your mental models of the way you think she is. Similarly, you are then more likely to interpret borderline behaviors in line with the way you believe she is. Noticing more proof of her as “that way,” you have now reinforced your belief that she is, indeed, lazy.

Your choice of language in describing her as a liar sets in motion forces that help her see herself as a liar. The words you use to describe her create or strengthen the ways she sees herself. How she sees herself influences what she believes about herself. What she believes about herself shapes her actions in the future.

A helpful Teacher Talk strategy to break out of this pattern of labeling students is to talk about the behavior rather than the student. Describe the behavior rather than describing the student.

“That statement is not true,” concentrates on the statement and describes the behavior. “You are a liar,” concentrates on the speaker and describes the person.  “You are a bully,” points to the person.

“Threatening is not acceptable in our school,” points to the behavior. The silent message here is:  It is not you that is unacceptable; it is the behavior that is unacceptable.

A student who cannot locate his Responsibility Notebook is not disorganized. He is simply someone who cannot find his Responsibility Notebook at this time. “Yes, but he does it all the time!” you may be thinking. No, he doesn’t do it ALL the time. That is your belief about him surfacing. He may well do it the majority of the time, but he does not do it all the time. It is not who he is. It is what he does sometimes. Describing students as disorganized does little to help them be organized in the future. It is more likely to lock them into a rigid picture of themselves that is tough to escape.

Refuse to see a student as disorganized, lazy, a bully, a liar, or any other state of being. See him instead as someone who needs help with particular skills. See her behavior as a cry for help rather than an indication of her state of being. Give your students the help and the encouragement they need. You can do that best if you focus on the behavior, and not the state of being.


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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