Loss to Opportunity: Shifting Language to Positively Impact Student Outcomes

September 21, 2021

Nneka McGee

Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction


The biggest phrase of the 2021 school year was “learning loss.” School districts across the nation are gearing up to close the gaps many students experienced during the pandemic.

Although the intentions are worthy, we should consider avoiding words like “loss” with students. These words carry negative connotations, which can trigger harmful memories for students, especially those who experienced loss during the pandemic. Instead, we can shift the narrative from “learning loss” to more positive “learning opportunities.”

Use “Winning” Language

Imagine this simple exchange:

Student: What are we doing today?
Teacher: We’re going to work on your learning loss.

Now, consider the same exchange with different language:

Student: What are we doing today?
Teacher: We’re going to work on opportunities to learn.

It seems simple at first, but using positive language can have a tangible impact on students’ experiences. As we prepare to welcome students back into our classrooms, we must choose our words with intention. Instead of phrases such as “learning loss,” “missed instruction” or “failed practices,” consider using positive alternatives like “learning opportunities,” “student options” or “best practices.”

Offer Incentives

Students may need a little extra motivation to stay engaged. Try offering incentives to push them towards growth. This doesn’t have to cost a lot of money; incentives can be as simple as giving students “free time” at the end of the school day to recognize their work. Other no-cost or low-cost incentives include:

  • Written note – A note of thanks or recognition on a card or sticky note can make a kid’s day
  • Positive phone call – Providing praise to parents and guardians is sure to make a kid smile
  • Certificate – Use your favorite software program or sites such as Canva to create fun documents of recognition

Set Goals and Promote Progress

Students are more likely to take initiative when they feel learning is a process done “with” them and not “to” them. Try developing personal goals with your students to give them a sense of ownership over their learning. To avoid overwhelming them, set a series of short-term goals (one per grading period) or one long-term goal with several progress measures. Be intentional about meeting with students during the school year to check their progress and to offer support and guidance when challenges arise.

When students meet their goals, recognize their achievements to reinforce their success and promote their progress. Students who feel valued and supported as they learn are more likely to continue working on their goals as opposed to giving up.

Educators have a unique opportunity to set a positive tone for students. Let’s take this moment to ensure students can take their learning to the next level in environments designed to nurture and support their journeys.

Equip yourself with the best instructional strategies to help your students succeed. Explore American College of Education’s fully online education programs.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.
Nneka McGee
Nneka McGee, Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction

Dr. Nneka J. McGee is an innovative educator, researcher and advocate dedicated to creating and promoting pathways that provide students access and opportunities to navigate a future driven by automation and artificial intelligence. Prior to earning her Ed.D. at American College of Education, Nneka obtained a bachelor’s degree in English, a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and a juris doctorate. As part of her doctoral studies, she researched the experiences of K-12 teachers implementing or planning to implement artificial intelligence in classroom learning environments. She is a sought-after speaker on artificial intelligence in education and has shared her work as a panelist or presenter at national, state, regional and local conferences. Nneka is a proud member of HAKing Innovation’s Board of Directors, a non-profit, social impact organization on a mission to create a community of technical talent by exposing students to STEM experiences. She also serves as an AI practitioner advisory board member for the Engage AI Institute and was selected as an EdSAFE AI Alliance Fellow.

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