Speaking Your Students’ Love Languages

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Katrina is reading on her belly, sprawled out on the classroom floor, red hoodie tied around her waist, Jacqueline Woodson’s Feathers  in one hand and a pencil in the other. A pad of sticky notes is off to the side with the words “Jesus Boy” written on the top.

I kneel down beside Katrina, tucking my legs under me, smoothing my dress under my ankles as I rest my elbows on the floor.

“Tell me about ‘Jesus Boy,'” I ask.

“He’s well, not to be disrespectful, a white boy at this new school,” she whispers so as not to disrupt Nelly who is reading Dan Brown’s graphic novel, Drowned City, near by. “It’s a Black school. There’s this boy Trevor, who is the novel’s bully, giving Jesus Boy a hard time, but Jesus Boy does not fight back.”

“Right, what would you do if you were Jesus Boy? ” I ask.

“Fight back,” she says.

“And speaking of fighting back. I am feeling really bad about class yesterday. It was the first time you’ve ever talked back to me like that, and instead of privately asking you what was going on, I lectured you in front of the class. I am sorry. Do you forgive me?” I whispered back.

“I am sorry,” Katrina said. “I was insolent.”

“Nice vocab word, and thank you, but really, it’s not like me. I want this to be a safe, happy place for both of us. You’ve been doing so well in class. Your story about Joey was beautiful, and your thinking about books — like this one — are so thoughtful. I want to keep that learning going. Do you accept my apology?” I replied.

“Yes, yes,” Katrina said with nod and closed-lipped smile. “You know. I like this book, Dr. Donovan. Can I read one part to you?”

The Theory of Love Languages

Grounded in behavior theory and hierarchy of needs and prompted by his work in marriage counseling, Gary Chapman (1995) developed the language theory to offer solutions to marriage problems. At the heart of this theory is the belief that love is expressed in many forms. People experience being loved in different ways. The language of the love being expressed may be a language that does not translate as love to the recipient. People tend to demonstrate love in the language they want to receive it, which may be different from the person they love.

Essentially, when people don’t feel loved, their “love tank” is empty, which can lead to anger, resentment, depression, and certainly estrangement. Chapman argues that we can minimize conflict in relationships if we first know our own love language, second take time to learn the love language of people in our lives, and third try to speak that love language.

Here is helpful infographic about love languages. Do you show love the same way you like to receive it? Do you know how your partner loves to be loved? Do you want to know your love language? Take the quiz.

5 love languages

Love Languages in Schoolslove language kids

I started this post with a scene from my own classroom because while Katrina’s life is really complicated (and so is mine), I think the source of our disagreement was that I ignored Katrina’s needs, and in arguing with her in front of the class, I hurt our teacher-student relationship. I knew that I had to reach out to her with time and words of affirmation if she was going to be open to learning and happy in our class, and I needed to apologize because I needed to assuage my own conscience.

So how do the love languages work with children? Chapman extended his theory to children in The Five Love Language of Children. While the audience for this book is mostly parents, it is also helpful for teachers. Indeed, all aspects of a child’s development require a foundation of love. If a child’s love tank is empty for whatever reason – lack of attention at home, trouble with friends, feeling misunderstood by teachers — teachers will see it manifest in behaviors like acting out, anger, or withdrawal. Thus, finding out the child’s love language and trying to fill his or her “tank” will  not only minimize the unwanted behavior but make the child feel loved. This is not to say that the student will not act out later, but the student will, at least, know the teacher can be a source of support and understanding.

If you are interested in a survey teachers can give or share with students for self-awareness and awareness of the difference in the class, here is a link.

As for parents, they need our love, too. When we communicate with parents by phone or via email or letters home, are we showing love to the parents of our students. They appreciate words of affirmation, quality time, and acts of service, too.

And while we’re at it, our colleagues might need some love. How are we treating one another? If our own love tanks are low, we may forget that our neighbor might need words of affirmation. Imagine how bringing a cup of coffee to your colleague in the morning might fill up a teacher’s love take that might be running low, and it will likely make you feel good, too (and both of you will be more alert that morning).

Mis-Used “Love”

We see elements of the love languages from the history of behaviorism  (Skinner) and humanism (Maslow). For behaviorism, the love languages can be used to reinforce or minimize certain behaviors. For the hierarchy of needs, we know that love is essential to belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. In every school, there are students coming from homes where their physiological and safety needs aren’t even met let along love and belonging. The teacher and school may be the only place where students are safe and where they do have access to love.

As beautiful as love can be and as important as it is for students to feel love, there is a dark side to using a student’s love language to manipulate behavior. Loving is more complex than identifying a language and trying to speak that language, especially if it is going through some automated translation or check-boxes approach. In other words, the love languages theory implies that teens will responding to stimuli with automaticity (e.g., good behavior in exchange for a gift). However, teens are quite capable of recognizing when someone is trying to speak their language or bribing them (and this can backfire or make inauthentic the student-teacher relationship). Teens, like all human beings, have complex lives with varied needs.Understanding people calls for a look at the love tank but also other areas in need of attention like mental health, cognitive, social, cultural, and linguistic.

Mindful Love

Be mindful that people communicate in multiple languages. “Using” the language to get a desired response can 1) be manipulative and 2) create dependence.

Teachers should use this theory to inform their choices and be mindful of how students give and receive love (and that they might not have experience with loving in a healthy way). Teachers should also consider how genuine and compassionate their communication is with students (ethics).It is not enough to try to make others feel good about you or your class in the hopes they’ll cooperate or make you feel good.

And teachers must be mindful of their own ways of relating. Teachers may not have had experiences with healthy love or healthy relating  (without manipulation). Like students, teachers may be dependent on certain forms of love and use them in manipulative ways. For example, words of affirmation to stroke someone’s ego or quality time before asking for a favor or something in return. Teachers might consider these questions to be more mindful of love in the classroom:

  • How can we affirm students and give needed feedback (positive and constructive) in compassionate, ethical ways?
  • How can we be mindful of our own communication preferences so as to not project onto or manipulate our students?
  • In what situations are gifts or behavior tokens appropriate so as not to create dependence?
  • How do you give quality time to students when you have so many students and time is minimal?

Organizing class time around reading conferences has created time and space for me to meet with students individually throughout the week to offer at least a little time and opportunity for words of affirmation. A few minutes and the right words can go a long way to making the classroom a safe place for students to feel a little love from their teachers, which I think supports students in their social, emotional, and cognitive development. And it fills up my love tank, too.


Chapman, Gary D, and Ross Campbell. The 5 Love Languages of Children: The Secret to Loving Children Effectively. , 2016. Print.

Egbert, Nichole; Polk, Denise. “Speaking the Language of Relational Maintenance: A Validity Test of Chapman’s Five Love Languages”. Communication Research Reports. 23 (1): 19–26. 23 Aug. 2006.

Forced Choice Reinforcement Menu.” CCSD15. 9 Sept. 2016

“Love Languages.” Xonecole. Image. 9 Sept. 2016.

Powlison, David. “Love Speaks Many Languages Fluently.” The Journal of Biblical Counseling. Fall 2002.

One Reply to “Speaking Your Students’ Love Languages”

  1. I have been itching to do this with my students for some time now. Your post has reaffirmed the importance of love languages in the classroom, and I am motivated to include this test in our first unit next year–identity.

    Thank you!

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