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How Love Languages Hold The Key to Inclusion

Updated: Feb 14

If you’re a devoted inclusionist, you likely spend lots of time racking your brain for the optimal tactic to reshape the belief systems of resistant skeptics.  Whether it’s tugging at heartstrings through personal anecdotes, or pushing endless amounts of research that highlight inclusive education as a panacea, it’s easy to feel that your efforts are never enough.  

In my time as an inclusion facilitator, I have found that challenging a mindset is the Olympic tier of instructional coaching.  Not only does it require expertise in teaching and learning, but also a high level of emotional intelligence.  It is a process that forces educators to deeply reflect on their classroom environment and culture, instructional technique, and the lurking biases surrounding disability.  Let’s face it, change is hard, and when you’re tasked with dismantling a set of ideals, your work can feel nearly impossible.

What if I told you that the secret sauce to swaying even the most resistant anti-inclusionists is through…love languages.

Chances are you’ve read, or at least heard of, Gary Chapman’s 1992 bestseller The 5 Love Languages.  An unofficial handbook for deciphering relationships, Chapman’s work provides guidance on establishing connections that stand the test of time.  I believe that these  “love languages” transcend romantic relationships and can be applied to leading inclusive change.

The premise of The 5 Love Languages is that we all give and receive love in different ways.  To make a relationship last, one must be willing to speak their partner's love language --- even if it’s not a tongue they’re fluent in.   Similarly, when working to implement inclusive change, we need to be mindful of how educators receive support.  Getting clear on how stakeholders accept support allows change agents to maximize their efforts in ensuring that individual staff members, students, and families receive the type of assistance that they need to feel successful in their inclusive endeavors.  

Chapman outlines the following five love languages:

Words of Affirmation

Communicating affection through spoken or written praise, appreciation, encouragement, and frequent “I love yous.” 

Quality Time

Expressing love by fully focusing attention on your partner through shared activities, conversations, and togetherness.

Physical Touch

Showing care through intimate and affectionate physical contact and presence.  

Acts of Service

Thoughtful deeds and gestures that make your partner’s life easier by relieving the burden.

Receiving Gifts

Giving meaningful surprises and symbolic presents to celebrate affection.

(Guy-Evans, 2024)

These concepts extend beyond romantic relationships and can be applied effectively when working to implement inclusive change.  Rather than speaking a “love language,” we can communicate through that individual’s “support language.”  For example…

Words of Affirmation Translate to Words of Validation.  An individual whose support language is words of validation requires acknowledgement of their experience and recognition of their efforts.  The process is just as important, if not more than, the endpoint for these educators.

Quality Time is the Equivalent of Collaborative Planning.  People who speak this support language value working as a cohesive team.  They benefit from structured time to collaborate with colleagues and brainstorm ideas together.

Physical Touch Amounts to Visibility.  Educators who value visibility want to see their leaders and coaches in classrooms, working alongside them.  They value personal connections and partnerships and need to feel supported through physical presence.

Acts of Service Looks Like Servant Leadership.  Individuals who prefer to be supported through servant leadership value a commitment from their administrators to promote the growth and well-being of all members within the organization.  Educators who speak the servant leadership support language need to feel valued beyond their professional role, and appreciate their leaders and coaches knowing them as a whole person.

Receiving Gifts Corresponds to Receiving Resources.  People who speak this support language value obtaining instructional tools, recommendations, and ideas that enhance learning experiences for all students.  Connecting them with these strategies and tools will help them feel more successful.

In my time spent coaching mindsets, I have come to learn that the way you give support and how a person receives it can be two very different things.  When there is a misalignment between someone’s attempts to help and the recipient’s idea of what that help should look like, the “giver” can feel as if they are running on the proverbial hamster wheel, never able to please, which ultimately results in negative outcomes for students.

To truly be champions of change, we need to speak in ways in which others will not only listen, but become empowered to serve as more inclusive educators. We must...

Invest in Learning One Another’s Support Language.  This means taking time to ask intentional questions.  When planning to assist a colleague, rather than saying “how can I help you?”  try, “What do you need to feel more effective in your teaching?”  No singular person is able to solve the problems that arise in classrooms daily, but knowing how a person defines their vision of support helps you to connect them to resources that will meet their needs.  

Recognize that Support Languages Change Based on Context.  While individuals likely have one primary support language, preferences may vary dependent upon the situation.  For example, a challenging IEP meeting likely calls for “collaborative planning.”  When presenting a complicated lesson, “visibility” may be key. It is important to be specific about the type of support that is needed and communicate openly about what is required.

Start and End with Support in Mind.  When shifting towards inclusive classrooms, teachers need support just as students do.  Identify supports that are aligned with the individual’s preferred support language and plan intentionally with how that assistance helps achieve the ultimate goal.

Wouldn’t our classrooms (and the world) be better off if we took the time to understand each other’s needs as professionals, individuals, and human beings?  Consider taking a page from Gary Chapman’s book (with an EmpowerED twist) and make sure that the support you are providing is in line with the support your colleagues are hoping to receive.

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