Four Sentences Educators Must Stop Saying About Students

This is part III of a IV blog series on bias and teacher expectations. Click these links to access post I and post II

The language we use to talk about students matters. It reflects and shapes our perceptions, and most importantly, our expectations for student success. Sometimes the words we use to talk about students have biases within them we never intended. It’s easier to focus on our good intentions than to dig deeper into the implicit biases behind our words.

It’s time to change this—change our language together to reshape the relationship between schools and the students and families we serve.

Make a Courageous Commitment

In your school, make a courageous commitment to shift all staff conversations about kids and their families from a deficit mindset, which views diversity as a problem kids bear, to an asset mindset: one which truly values students and their communities for the diversity they bring.

Let’s get specific about what this looks like by reframing four of the most harmful statements commonly made about students of color, English-language learners (ELLs), students living in poverty, or any underperforming student group different from the dominant culture of the school.

Four Deficit Statements That Perpetuate Bias

Begin to agree to stop saying the following statements, and to speak up to reframe the conversation when you hear others say them:

“These students can’t…”

“They aren’t motivated.”

“They have no background knowledge.”

“Their parents don’t care about education.”

There are real issues to discuss in these sentences, and we should not be silent on the issues of students’ current achievement levels, motivation, prior knowledge, and family involvement; but we must reframe our conversations entirely.

We must be intentional in shifting our discourse from:

  • a fixed mindset to a growth mindset
  • assumption to inquiry
  • blame to ownership
  • generalizations to specificity
  • cultural bias to cultural relevance

How to Reframe Deficit Statements:

Student Achievement
Instead of saying… Reframe your idea with a growth mindset, specificity, ownership, inquiry, and cultural relevance. Say and reflect:

Our students can’t…

These kids can’t…

ELLs can’t…

Our Native American students don’t…

Some students can’t YET

(Name students) currently struggle in these areas (be specific with the data).

We need to create more opportunities for our students to…

How might we better help our students be successful with…?

Background knowledge
Instead of saying… Reframe your idea with a growth mindset, specificity, ownership, inquiry, and cultural relevance. Say and reflect:
They have no background knowledge.

Our school curriculum doesn’t connect to students’ background knowledge.


  • What experiences do students bring to the classroom?
  • What can they teach me?
  • What matters most to my students and their families?
  • How might ELLs’ experience knowing two languages give them an advantage over monolingual kids?
  • How might students’ experiences with more than one culture give them an advantage?
  • How might we improve how we connect learning to students’ prior experiences and values?
Instead of saying… Reframe your idea with a growth mindset, specificity, ownership, inquiry, and cultural relevance. Say and reflect:

Our students are not motivated.

ELLs aren’t motivated.

Many of our black and Latino boys are not motivated to achieve.

Our current approach to instruction does not motivate our students.

Our current approach does not engage the majority of our students of color.


  • How might we change our texts, tasks, and/or tools to motivate and engage every learner?
  • How might we make instruction more culturally relevant?
  • How might we make instruction more engaging?
  • When in our teaching are our students most motivated? What can we learn from these experiences?
  • What implicit biases might exist in our school culture that de-motivate students?
  • How will we address these?
Parent Involvement
Instead of saying… Reframe your idea with a growth mindset, specificity, ownership, inquiry, and cultural relevance. Say and reflect:

Parents don’t care about education.

Their parents don’t participate in the school.

Parents don’t help at home.

Parents are involved in different ways than I would expect from my own experience with parent-school partnerships.

Our current efforts to increase parent involvement are a mismatch for our parent community.

Our school is not effectively engaging parents as partners.


  • What are parents’ values and goals regarding their children’s education?
  • What types of opportunities for school involvement best engage our parent communities?
  • How might we make school a welcoming and inclusive place for parents of all backgrounds?
  • How might we best support parents in supporting their students?

Collaborate to End Deficit Discourse 

Please collaborate with colleagues to raise awareness of how we talk about students—especially students of color, ELLs, students in poverty, and any student group whose identity and experiences differ from majority culture in your school. Download my Role Play Cards to Reframe Deficit Talk, and use them to practice reframing deficit conversations. Post these in the staff room and use them to support one another in establishing and enacting a norm of respectful, asset-based talk about kids.

This isn’t just about changing our words. It’s about reshaping our mindsets together, in order to create effective and equitable schools, and in turn a more equitable society.

* * * *

What deficit-based statements have you heard in educator conversations?

Which are you most likely to say yourself?

How will you help end deficit discourse in schools?

Online Links:

A Framework for Educator Mindsets and Consequences by @RobFilback and A. Green

Challenge the Deficit Mindsets in Education by @GregBCurran

Culturally Relevant Teaching by Heather Coffey

Discrimination at School Harms Young ELLs, Study Says via @edweek

Do They Really Care? Latino Parent Involvement in Urban Schools by Desireé Vega

English Language Learners: Shifting to an Asset-Based Paradigm via Voices in Urban Education

Recommended Books and Articles: 

Browne, R. (2012). Walking the Equity Talk: A Guide for Culturally Courageous Leadership in School Communities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Davis, B. (2012). How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You: Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Muhammad, A. (2015). Overcoming the Achievement Gap Trap: Liberating Mindsets to Effect Change. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Nuri-Robins, Lindsey, Lindsey, & Terrell (2011). Culturally Proficient Instruction, 3rd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Pollock, T. (2013). Unpacking Everyday “Teacher Talk” about Students and Families of Color: Implications for Teacher and School Leader Development.

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.


  • Deb Sandweiss

    March 22, 2016, 10:42 am

    The chart is really helpful. This is so important for all teachers to be aware of.

  • Laura

    September 30, 2016, 5:05 am

    I just heard an educator say “I deal with kids who have….”. I find labeling a student by their disability and the adding that you “deal” with them rather then teach them, work with them, or learn with them is very limiting for the child and adult.

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