General Question

SundayKittens's avatar

How do I stop my students from doing this?

Asked by SundayKittens (5834points) October 5th, 2009

As any of you with teenagers know, the words “retard” and “gay” are slung at people as insults about 40 times a day.
I understand that they’re not really thinking about the meaning when they say it but it’s my job to educate these kids about why those words are wrong, as well as to protect the kids in my class that may actually be gay or have special needs.
I have a 3 strikes rule but they still don’t get it. They’ve gone so far as to ask me what’s wrong with saying those words. Say what??What do you think is the best method to get these kids to stop?

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43 Answers

syz's avatar

Most sources seem to recommend role playing sessions, with the offenders in the role of an oppressed minority. (If they are not offended by the specific terms, you may need to substitute something that they do consider offensive as an example). It’s not my area of expertise, you may want to find some resources in sensitivity training, etc.

holden's avatar

How old are your students?

Sarcasm's avatar


Disc2021's avatar

I think in one of these situations, you need to be firm. 3 strikes means they get 2 free shots before they get thrown out. A write-up every time might make them think twice. One of my teachers in high school was VERY serious about this – the moment someone uttered something like this in class they were immediately asked to leave the room and were usually written up/penalized. Think about the other students who are bothered/uncomfortable hearing things like this – whether they’re gay themselves or they have gay friends/relatives (same goes with mental disabilities). I think the classroom in all circumstances should be always be a safe, positive, comfortable environment for everyone.

I would explain very bluntly that insult-derogatory words like those may offend people in the room and are synonymous with the “N” word. You either have to show zero tolerance or they’re just going to keep saying it.

TheIncomparableBenziniBrothers's avatar

Make anyone who uses such a word stand at the back of the classroom facing the wall for an entire class period. Do it consistently and the behavior will be gone by the end of the school year.

wundayatta's avatar

Sometimes, with my kids, I just forbid them to use some words (like “duh” for example). They use them too often, and it is derogatory. I explain this to them, and tell them such words need to be used in moderation. I allow them to use it maybe once a day—I don’t completely forbid it.

The role-playing idea is a good one. So is explaining the issue to them. People are people, no matter what their abilities and sexual orientations are. Everyone should be respected. If not, then we build a society of rudeness, and that sucks for everyone. You can forbid them to use the words in your class. Some things just have to stop, immediately.

These things are serious, and need to be treated aggressively. They can spread like a cancer.

You can demand respect from your students, and you can demand they respect each other. Part of it is that they may not have good socialization skills. Kids often insult the scapegoats in order to make themselves more popular with the others. At other times it is their way of expressing anger, and “problem solving.” Of course, calling people names is a most ineffective way of solving problems.

You can try teaching them other ways to solve problems. You may have to make that fit into the structure of the material you are supposed to teach. Hopefully that will be possible. Each time they say this kind of stuff, I would intervene, and suggest an alternative way of handling the issue. Teach them how to solve problems kindly, and the insults and hatred will gradually start to go away.

holden's avatar

Maybe you can explain to them that those words are not only insulting and hurtful but also make them sound like unimaginative morons (because it does). Then give them a list of cool Elizabethan insult terms that they can use instead. Make them practice their new cooler insults on their friends in class. Then if they continue to use “retard” and “faggot” or the ilk you can make them sit in the corner with a dunce hat.

JLeslie's avatar

I agree they have to somehow know what it is like to be in the minority position. The children using the words gay and retard probably do not judge or hate gays or people with learning disabilities, so they think others should not be offended, because they do not have malicious intent against those groups. This is also a lesson for minorities to understand that when some of these regularly used slang words are flung around, they should not take it so personally. They should not internalize it. But, of course, I come down on the side of these words should not be used this way.

The kids just think it is cool to say and then it becomes a habit. Seems like if they use the term there should be some sort of punishment. Maybe if they use it they should write on the blackboard 20 times Jason, if Jason was the one who said it, Jason is gay, and leave it up for 24 hours. I don’t know maybe that is a bad idea?? But, something. Maybe just detention?

LostInParadise's avatar

At what point do you draw the line on what students are allowed to say? Certainly obscenities and ethnic and racial slurs should not be permitted. These are terms that are specifically designed to belittle. But what else? Is it okay to call someone a moron or a dork instead of a retard? Is it okay to call someone a sissy instead of gay? Ideally, students would not use any epithets but, hey, they are teenagers. You can make narrow rules for what students are allowed to say when they answer questions in class, but to what extent is is acceptable to limit what they say to one another? I am not saying I condone such behavior, but I think it is a matter for parents to deal with rather than a teacher.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

When I worked with a high school youth group, we used a put up/put down rule. If anyone said anything derogatory to another person, and were called on it, they had to say two genuinely nice things to that person—things like “nice shoes” didn’t count.

You could ban certain words from the class, but it might be better to talk about the intention of words, and how they’re delivered. Calling someone a “jock” or “Barbie” can be delivered an equally hurtful way.

@LostInParadise, I disagree that this is a matter for parents to deal with. Most will see it as no big deal, especially if they are homophobic or bigoted themselves.

JLeslie's avatar

Another thought. If you just question the kid using the term in front of everyone, “why are you using the word gay?” Maybe that will be enough because he won’t want to be put on the spot in front of his calssmates? He will inevitable say. “I don’t know,” and shrug, but still maybe making him answer for himself will make him think twice before using the phrase again. Again, I am not expert, just throwing out ideas.

JLeslie's avatar

@PandoraBoxx But, it is not only the child being called “gay” it is the gay children around him we are worried about. How does your punishment help them? And, if that child being called gay is gay, and it is said in a derogatory way, I don’t see how telling him he has nice shoes after the fact will help him feel good about being gay? Although, I agree that it might be a deterent for the child doing the name calling.

DominicX's avatar


It doesn’t sound like anybody’s being called anything; the words are just being used in general to describe situations or inanimate objects or something, like “this is so gay”, etc.

gussnarp's avatar

There are some good ideas here, I don’t know if some kind of sensitivity training will help, but just telling them that it is equivalent to the “n-word” isn’t likely to work. The problem is that, as inappropriate as these words are, to many teenagers today, they just aren’t. Particularly using the word “gay” as an insult. Even a number of years ago I called out a teenager that I worked with on using this word, and he just didn’t get it. We were around gay men and women on a regular basis, he knew this, had no problem with it, and considered them friends. But to him using the word as an insult had nothing to do with the fact that he had gay friends. I can’t explain this well (neither could he) but the word “gay” used as an insult is not only common, but partly because there is a greater acceptance of homosexuality among youth today, it lacks venom. To them it is not the equivalent of the “n-word” and just saying so won’t change that for them. Even some gay teenagers use the word as an insult. Now, I don’t like it. I don’t think they should do it, but you may have to do more than just explain to change their minds and actions. I like @JLeslie‘s idea of just asking them why they used the word might help, especially if it could lead to a quality discussion. If you can get them to figure out for themselves why it is wrong, then you’ve got a chance.

JLeslie's avatar

@DominicX so then I am back to what @PandoraBoxx said as a punishment would not be adequate, it is the children around who might be offended we are worried about. For that matter a child would not have to be gay to be offended, he might just be aware it is mean, or have a gay parent, gay friend whatever.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

Because having to say something truly nice to a person, is really hard, especially for teenagers in a group. It holds accountability for the fact that what was said was hurtful and insulting, and by requiring student who said it to come up with something sincerely nice to say, to think about the meaning of words.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

Saying you have nice shoes is NOT an acceptable put-up; it’s an example of what does not count as an appropriate answer. Saying something nice is, “I appreciate that you are always willing to give me your notes from class.” or “You are always willing to listen to people.”

MissAusten's avatar

You can continue to enforce rules in your class and maybe help the students practice a bit of empathy. So many things come from home, though, and I can imagine that even parents who aren’t comfortable with a child using words like gay or retard might shy away from discussing it with their child. Stick to your guns, and if the kids can’t refrain from using words you don’t approve of in your classroom, send a note home to the parents. Teenagers should have enough self-control to follow the rules in your class.

My daughter is only ten, and shortly after the school year started I heard her say, “That is so gay,” about something. As soon as we had a quiet moment together, I asked her why she said that. She said, “It means something is really weird. That’s what all the kids at school say when something is weird.” I asked if she knew what the word gay meant, and she said, “In the olden days it meant really happy, but now it means really weird.” I just love the things kids learn at school from other kids. We had a long conversation about the different uses for the word gay, which led to a conversation about gay people, which turned into a talk about gay marriage rights. By the end of our talk, she was nearly in tears. She, herself, made a comparison between gay rights and the civil rights movement. This was not an easy conversation to have with a ten year old girl. However, I have not heard her use the term “gay” in any sort of derogatory way or as a synonym for weird since then. In her case, ignorance led to simply repeating what other kids were saying. I’d have a hard time imagining that a teenager wouldn’t know what gay or retard means.

I don’t know about teens, since I don’t have one of those yet and try to avoid them as much as I can, but I do like @PandoraBoxx ‘s suggestion about the put up. If you can have a class discussion about hurtful words, maybe even with thoughts submitted anonymously and read to the class, they might become more aware of how their words affect others.

JLeslie's avatar

@PandoraBoxx But @DominicX was making an example of someone using it about a thing. Like “that book is gay.” Then what?

DominicX's avatar

As a teenager, I can say that teenagers definitely know what the words mean; they’re old enough to know that and you can’t blame ignorance on that part. However, the problem is that they just don’t think it’s offensive. I remember seeing a comedian say something about when he used “gay” as an insult, it had nothing to do with gay people, there was just no other way to describe things like a fanny pack. :P

I have to say that I went to high school for four years as a closeted gay person and I never found the term “gay” as a general negative adjective (GNA) to be that offensive to me personally, but the problem is that people make an association between “gay” and “negative” and that reinforces the notion that being gay is negative, wrong, or weird. You said it’s your job to educate them and inform them that the words are offensive, then that’s what you should do. Show them that using gay as a GNA associates being gay with something negative. Obviously, some people believe being gay is wrong due to religion, but this is about possibly offending other kids which is not acceptable. Being a gay kid is not easy; I would know.

Teenagers are not as stupid as people think; they’re just missing the point and they can be educated to get the point. Plenty of adults don’t realize the point either.

I know I’m biased, but I think “gay” is more of an issue than “retard”. If you can only focus on one, “gay” would be the one to focus on. Disabled people are not discriminated against nor thought of as being “wrong”, “weird”, or “disgusting” on the same level that gay people are and even a small thing like eliminating the usage of “gay” as a general negative insult is a step in the right direction.

JLeslie's avatar

@MissAusten you helped show my point that many people throw these words around without realizing or meaning to be offensive. When I lived in Michigan several people used the expression “jew it down” to describe bargaining with someone. I had never heard such a phrase. When I expalined why that is offensive, they said they had not really thought of it, they just had always used that expression.

gussnarp's avatar

@DominicX You are absolutely right that the key is to convince them that “the problem is that people make an association between “gay” and “negative” and that reinforces the notion that being gay is negative, wrong, or weird”. But on “retard”, well, the scope of the discrimination doesn’t matter as long as there is discrimination. And you are definitely biased. Many people don’t have much experience with developmental disabilities, but there are serious problems with discrimination and with just outright insulting people with developmental disabilities.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

Use of slang equates to poor vocabulary. Why would you describe a book as “gay” except if you lacked the vocabulary to describe the book correctly. Perhaps application of the socratic method would be in order.
Why is the book gay? Is it particularly happy? Are the characters homosexuals?
Why did you say Corey’s shirt is gay? Gay’s are generally stereotyped as having exceptional fashion sense. Are you trying to articulate your admiration for Corey’s taste in shirts?
Explain yourself.

iputthexintexas's avatar

@LostInParadise i like the way you think.

JLeslie's avatar

@PandoraBoxx we are agreeing that is basically what I said way above, here it is again Another thought. If you just question the kid using the term in front of everyone, “why are you using the word gay?” Maybe that will be enough because he won’t want to be put on the spot in front of his calssmates? He will inevitable say. “I don’t know,” and shrug, but still maybe making him answer for himself will make him think twice before using the phrase again. Again, I am not expert, just throwing out ideas.

MissAnthrope's avatar

@kikibirdjones – God bless you. The world would be so much better if there were more teachers like you. Wish I had more lurve to give you just for the effort in this particular fight, I am honestly very touched.

@PandoraBoxx – I really, really like your suggestion, the put down/put up rule.

galileogirl's avatar

If you want to have a real effect you have to go beyond your classroom to your school and district. When everyone is on the same page, it significantly cuts back on the namecalling, They may still do it out of earshot but everyone recognizes it as ignorant behavior

Everyone has to be on the same page. No adult can let it pass, most kids don’t want to be hateful but need to feel they aren’t alone in standing up for what’s right. I’ve seen the change in my school. It’s not a matter of punishment but rather doing the right thing whether you turn it into a short class discussion or one on one. You don’t let them use obscenities and fag and retarded are just as nasty and disruptive. Besides it shows a lack of respect for the educational process…and you as the teacher.

Disc2021's avatar

@DominicX Using “gay” as an adjective could either mean happy or bad/negative/stupid and usually, it’s the latter. I dont think the issue is that people just interpret the meaning negatively – but it’s usually said in a negative tone. Whether or not it’s meant to offend gays nearby or just said merely as figurative speech – there are people in the room that are open to interpret it as hostility. Doesn’t mean they HAVE to necessarily – as you haven’t, being closed and gay in high school (myself as well), but as long as that possibility is there the risk remains of creating an uncomfortable environment for someone in the room.

Same story with kids that say “Oh, when I say the N word I dont mean it like that, I’m talking about my friends”. I think in the context of your house, basement, personal time away from a professional/educational – all of that stuff is okay. In an educational setting, I dont really think it’s fair to those who just dont want to hear it.

I dont think the object should be to induce your own doctrine onto the kids, but to make them understand that harassment (whether direct or indirect) of any kind in that type of setting is intolerable and inappropriate.

OpryLeigh's avatar

I agree with both @LostInParadise and @DominicX

Most of the time, when I hear teenagers using these words in jest towards their friends they don’t mean it maliciously and I doubt that most of them are either homophobic or cruel when it comes to the disabled. My brother was a prime example. He is such a sweet guy and very accepting and tolerant of most people but when he got angry at something he would automatically call it “gay”. I once asked him if he was homophobic, the first thing he said was “what does that mean?”. When I explained it to him he was horrified that I would think that. His excuse for using the word “gay” as a negative term was that words (like fashion) seem to go in cycles and each time they come back they have a slightly different meaning. Remember that gay once meant happy? When he used the word “gay” when expressing a dislike of something he wasn’t think of gay = happy or gay = homosexual, he was thinking of the new meaning of the word which was in no way linked to happiness or homosexuality.

Now, I am not saying that it is right at all but I am more forgiving when I hear such things now because I can remember that conversation with my brother. He was about 15 years old at the time.

YARNLADY's avatar

I remember a class on “The Power of Words” day. The teacher put all kinds of taboo words on the board, next to a list of socially acceptable words. There was a discussion about which words were most powerful, and why, and in what setting one choice would be better than another.

There was an assigment to write two conversations one using taboo words, and the other using acceptable words for a possible ‘corporate’ or ‘home’ setting.

LostInParadise's avatar

@PandoraBoxx I like your put down/ pull up idea, but I do not think that it would be appropriate in general for high school students. It would probably work well for elementary school students. It reminds me of this book: , which earned its author a McCarther genius award

tiffyandthewall's avatar

a lot of people that say it are doing it out of habit. i think that if you consistently discipline them when they use one of the words in a derogatory manner, they’ll catch on eventually. it’ll probably take more time than it should, but i definitely think that the majority of them have just added these words to their vocabulary as synonyms for ‘stupid’ without actually thinking about it.
of course, if you haven’t already, address why it’s offensive.

kruger_d's avatar

Swift and consistant discipline. I don’t mind explaining why a word is offensive to a fifth grader. But by the time they are in high school, I generally don’t explain since they are often just looking to argue, get attention, avoid work. Most learn pretty quickly what’s acceptable language. I don’t have time to teach compassion, but I can change behavior pretty efficiently. When students question my rules I often respond “I would be glad to talk with you after class about it.” which has the benefit of being true and generally shuts them down. If you think kids really don’t realize what they are saying, perhaps a discussion the first day of class when you go over behavior expectations would be worth while.

galileogirl's avatar

With a 5 min explanation you are notjust addressing a student, you are teaching a lesson to the whole class. Even if the lesson is “stop using ‘gay’ so we don’t have to listen to this again”, it will greatly reduce the use of that language. I’ve actually used the ‘talk til they drop’ strategy very effectively. Although I use negative discipline in certain situations, I find positive reinforcement and addressing issues in positive ways is better and doesn’t bring a bad vibe into the classroom.

deni's avatar

wow, this is weird. i was just talking to my friend, who is a middle school teacher, about this same exact thing. he also has a three strike rule and has been having a lot of problems with kids saying “retarded” and “gay” way too much recently and has been having to give detentions and stuff. anyhow that isn’t the point, the point is that your question description was almost word for word what he was telling me. i had to check your profile to see if you were him, lol.

his idea to fix it is to have kids that keep saying it write a paper (well, fill the front side of a sheet of paper) using all the uses of the word that they know. so for example, they would write “what a gay hat. you are gay. this is a gay project. thats gay.” etc etc etc, and then they would write those same phrases again but use different words in their place. his thought is that the kid, after finishing this, will get so sick of looking at the word and actually maybe have added a new word to his vocabulary or something. kind of odd, who knows if it will work. i’ll report back.

SundayKittens's avatar

HA @deni. Isn’t that weird? Tell him that my high schoolers are driving me insane!
It’s harder here in the heart of the Bible belt for them to stop the ‘gay’ thing. When I approached one kid he actually said “I don’t care, I hate gay people”..all I could say was “That makes me very sad for you” before the rage in my body forced me to walk away to cool down.
Thank you for all of your suggestions.

deni's avatar

@kikibirdjones Wow. How old are your students? That is sad, what a harsh thing for a kid to say.

JLeslie's avatar

@kikibirdjones That is awful. I would not have guessed that response, I have been coming from the perspective that children just use phrases without even really thinking of how they developed or who migt be hurt. My nephew says some crazy sh#t on his facebook page (gosh I wish his mom would get on facebook so she could stop him) and many times it is something rude about gay sex. His uncle is gay, and my nephew is never disrespectful to him, and I really think my nephew is fine with it. I think he just wants to be “cool” with his friends and they talk like that. I can’t imagine he would ever say he hates gay people.

I live in the bible belt also (my nephew doesn’t to be clear) and I am constantly amazed at what comes out of their mouths. Not just the chiildren, the adults too.

naivete's avatar

A couple of friends and I were having this same conversation in a peer mediation class. We’re all 17 year olds yet my friends simply do not understand the damage they are creating by saying “that’s so gay” or “you’re a retard. I tried to explain to them that by calling something you think it stupid or annoying “gay” you are indirectly saying that people who are gay are stupid or annoying. They said they didn’t mean it that way. I still tried to explain that even if they didn’t mean it that way it was still taken that way.
In the end, they were too narrow minded to understand. You can not change the thought processes of people. You can only change your own thought processes and hope that it catches on. My favourite trick however, is using attributes of your students to express your emotions. For instance, if one your students is Hispanic and you don’t like that it’s raining outside say .. “That’s so Hispanic”... They’ll ask you why you said that and you can explain why you said it. It catches them off guard.

areyouawizardtoo's avatar


areyouawizardtoo's avatar

or you could give them dentention…..... forever mwawaha

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