Preventing Profanity with Peace and Love

In Attention-Deficit: The Other Kind, I wrote:

    …the more you wear a pet peeve on your sleeve, the more kids will trigger it. Such was the case for me with profanity, which completely bugged the sh_ _ out of me as a new teacher. And sure enough, the more I admonished students for swearing, the more they did it. It was only when I came up with a more proactive, less confrontational approach that I was able to get cussing under control.

So how did I get cussing under control? Well, it started with a reality check re: my initial response to profanity, which was purely punitive—i.e., any time a kid cussed, I took disciplinary action. Yet no matter how many calls I made to parents or referrals I sent to the dean (my single-day record was 37!), profanity prevailed. And the more I punished students for cussing, the more adversarial my relationship with them became. Finally, exasperated by how much time I was spending policing profanity and how ineffective it was, I sought a better approach.

I started by recognizing the difference between students saying, “that m.f.  is cool” and “you’re a m.f.” Both were unacceptable, but the former was usually unhostile. It was also often unconscious—i.e., expressions like, “sh_ _, man…” and “fu _ _ in’ cool” were so much a part of students’ vernacular that they didn’t even know they were cussing, and even when they did, they didn’t consider it inappropriate. (No wonder my relationship with them became so adversarial.) And since nearly all cussing in my classroom was of this incidental (vs. intentional) nature, I decided to treat most profanity as a teachable offense rather than a punishable one. In short, I needed to raise students’ self-awareness of their cussing and, in turn, their ability to self-regulate it. And the way I did this was through a simple rule: 

Any time you’re about to use fu_ _ or sh_ _ , replace it with peace or love or a derivative thereof. 

Pretty crazy, huh? Agreed, but also effective—much more so than even I expected. In fact, the very day I introduced this “rule,” students ran with it. And not just any students, but some of the biggest offenders, who really got into calling classmates “mother lovers” or telling me I was “full of peace.” Better yet, when students slipped up, their classmates—not I— let them know it: “you mean ‘peace’ or ‘love.'” And even better, the offenders themselves soon began to acknowledge their slip-ups mid-sentence: “oops, my bad.” Hello self-awareness and self-regulation! And good-bye adversarial relationship.

Are there other ways to prevent profanity in the classroom? Of course. I’ve worked with schools whose zero-tolerance policy has been effective because all staff enforced it and the administration followed through on it. But in some schools, a high incidence of more serious infractions can result in a lack of consistency and urgency with respect to lesser offenses such as profanity. Sound familiar? If so, maybe it’s time for a more peaceful and loving approach.


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