The kids in my fourth grade class are calling each other "retards." There aren't any children who are developmentally disabled in my class, but there are in other classrooms. What can I do?
First and foremost, the children in your class need to know that you do not approve of their actions. Not speaking out in such a situation sends the message that you do not think the subject is worthy of attention, or worse, that you condone the action. Even if no individual is in immediate danger of being hurt by children's name-calling, it is essential that they know that their behavior is harmful. Time should be spent helping children understand that the old children's rhyme, "sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me," is not true. Words do hurt people and any name that belittles or demeans any population of people dehumanizes them. It would also be useful to have a discussion about terms like "retard" and to give children accurate information about mental and physical disabilities. With fourth graders, who are well on their way to being able to think in abstractions, a discussion about the power of language and the concept of dehumanization would also be appropriate.
It does not matter what group is the target of hate speech; whenever children use hateful speech it is the responsibility of adults to make it clear that this language will not be tolerated. Make it clear to students and their families from the beginning of the school year that you will not allow name-calling in your classroom. Explain the thinking behind "zero tolerance" when it comes to prejudice. Your appropriate and timely intervention is critical in establishing a safe environment where all students can succeed.