The R-Word and Teaching Kids about the Power of Language

Posted by Kimberly Palombo on 3/19/15 3:30 PM

KTNsmallcopyThrough the Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign in the month of March, people across the globe work to raise awareness about how the r–word—retard—marginalizes an entire group of people. The campaign encourages people to “take the pledge” to end the use of this derogatory, offensive, and exclusive word.

Once a medical term to diagnose individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), the r–word is now a slang term that can be heard everywhere: on playgrounds, in hallways and locker rooms, in countless television shows and movies, and all over social media.We hear this word so frequently in the media that we likely don’t actually hear it. In the seven years since Soeren Palumbo and Timbo Shriver started this movement, over 550,000 people have pledged to stop saying the word.

Whether you take the pledge to end the use of the r-word or not, there are many ways parents and teachers can help children understand that language has power: it reflects how we feel about people and, ultimately, how we treat others.

At School

Throughout this school year, we’ve explored the power of language with our Middle School students: how the words we choose matter and why some words contain more power than others. Specifically, we challenged our students to ask themselves three questions regarding what they say:

  1. Is it kind?
  2. Is it true?
  3. Is it necessary?

Our librarian and 8th grade Humanities teacher, Domi Long, created the poster (above) for our hallways to encourage students (and faculty!) to pause and remember that thinking before we speak is an essential step in communication.

Middle School students also planned a gathering to raise awareness about how the r–word, retard, disparages individuals with IDD.At the gathering on March 19, students welcomed Amanda Lukoff, a Washington, DC–based filmmaker directing The R Word, which is slated for release later this year. Ms. Lukoff’s older sister, Gabby, is an inspiring woman who happens to have Down Syndrome. Ms. Lukoff shared how she experienced the r–word growing up with her sister and her inspiration for the film.

At Home

You can use these same three questions—Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?—at home, too. Here are additional ways you can increase your child’s conscientiousness surrounding language:

  1. Expose them to individuals who have felt marginalized by words. A few examples include Lauren Potter, an actress from Glee (share her PSA about the r–word here), or John Franklin Stephens, who wrote An Open Letter to Ann Coulter after she used the r–word in a tweet.
  2. While watching television or a movie with your child, try counting the amount of times you hear the r–word, or other words that marginalize groups of people, in media.
  3. Talk to your child about when they hear the r–word, and other slurs, in their daily lives and ask them why they think the use of such derogatory terms perpetuates negative stereotypes of people.
  4. Encourage your child to speak up when they hear slurs spoken by peers.

Remind them it takes courage and bravery to do this, but little by little, replacing the demeaning r–word with respect makes the world a more accepting place for all people.

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Parenting, Teaching & Learning, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Kimberly Palombo

Written by Kimberly Palombo

Kim is the Director of Student Support Services at Lowell School. She is a contributing author to the Handbook of Learning Disabilities (2nd ed.) and Learning Disability Quarterly and frequently presents at conferences in the field of special education.