How to Talk to Children: Bing Teachers Offer Tips and Hints
By Simon Firth, Writer and Bing Parent
Spend time in any Bing classroom and you’ll notice the remarkable serenity that pervades the room. A class can be bustling, full of laughter and song—even energetic hammering—and yet it remains fundamentally calm.
Unlike at home, things hardly ever get out of control at Bing. Arguments and tantrums are fleeting and few. Teachers keep children focused on the myriad possibilities of learning through play.
Spend a little more time in the class and you’ll discover a key reason for this atmosphere: the very particular and deliberate ways in which Bing teachers communicate with their students. Their methods for engaging with children, encouraging play and inviting children to explore the world with each other often differ from the default tendencies of many parents.
This spring, Bing parents learned more about these methods and the philosophies behind them at a seminar titled “How to Talk to Children: Tips and Hints from Bing Teachers in Supporting Your Child’s Development.” Several staff offered ideas for promoting effective communication, talking about feelings, solving social problems and talking with children about the child’s work.
The April seminar, repeated in early May with a slightly different roster of teachers, began with a look at some basic techniques for improving parent-child communication.
Center AM teacher Karen Robinette spoke first about the value of listening. Children need to feel listened to, she said, and need time to formulate responses in a conversation. They also benefit tremendously from regular “floor time,” when a parent gets down on their level, makes eye contact and converses about what they’re interested in, not what the parent wants to say. “Try to let your child take the lead,” said Robinette.
Children just starting to speak benefit from having their actions simply narrated back to them as they play. Robinette convincingly illustrated this with a video clip of Two’s teacher Quan Ho narrating as a boy progressed across a climbing structure. At the end, the boy joyfully added his own narration: “Down we go!”
Although parents shouldn’t correct a young child’s grammatical mistakes, they can model the correct phraseology, Robinette added. They can also model polite behavior, such as saying hello and goodbye to people throughout the day.
Parents need to watch how they formulate their own statements, too. Children respond better, for instance, to positive guidance than to a litany of things they can’t do. At the same time, limits need to be well articulated. “Don’t offer a choice when there isn’t one!” Robinette advised.
Speaking about Feelings
Head Teacher Parul Roy, also from Center AM, spoke next about talking with children about feelings. “Behind every behavior is a feeling,” explained Roy. “So when you are responding to an action you need to understand the feeling behind it.”
By separating feeling from behavior, parents can also get children to behave appropriately and still be emotionally supportive, Roy suggested. “We should accept all feelings, but not all behaviors,” she argued.
Children need to know that it’s okay to be angry or anxious, for example, but they also need parents to be clear about how they can and can’t express those emotions (i.e. not by biting or hitting).
Knowing your child very well, and thus anticipating his or her mood changes as they get hungry or tired, can go a long way toward ameliorating an intense emotional situation, said Roy. However, she argued that parents also need to accept and respect their child’s feelings and give them plenty of room for (appropriate) expression.
Parents also need to beware of placing an adult agenda on what a child says, Roy added. If a child doesn’t want to go and play at a friend’s house, don’t make assumptions about why that’s so.
It may be nothing to be concerned about, and it’s not worth trying to force them to come up with a reason that you see as valid. “Give it some time before you jump in,” Roy suggested.
Parents can help younger children articulate and define feelings the children may not have words for. And all parents need to remember that when it comes to responding to feelings, no child is going to be able to respond as a parent would wish every time—and parents may not always respond in a way that is best for their child.
It’s important, Roy said, to remember you can always revisit an incident and talk about how you both might deal with a similar situation next time.
Talking Through Problems
Problematic social situations are among the hardest for preschoolers to deal with, and also among the hardest for adults to know how to resolve. For instance, when disputes break out between children, it’s easy for an adult to take sides or to come up with solutions that only seem to make things worse.
Knowing the right things to say in such situations can make things a lot better, argued West AM teacher Nandini Bhattacharjya (whose place was taken by Peckie Peters, Head Teacher of West AM, the following week).
Bhattacharjya advised parents that they can stop a lot of problems before they ever happen by anticipating a problem. “Suggest that your child put their most precious toys away before a playdate, for example,” she said.
She also explained the value of talking with children in order to set clear, consistent limits and expectations for both their social interactions and their behavior in general. If a child is expected to wash her hands before a meal, said Bhattacharjya, she should always be expected to do it.
Young children aren’t always ready to problem solve, so they may need help, Bhattacharjya added. They may need suggestions for how best to resolve a dispute, for example. And while adults should always acknowledge a child’s feelings (“I know you really want to go outside in the rain with no shoes”), at times the best solution is simply to redirect their attention to something else.
Problem Solving in Action
In a remarkable piece of video, teacher Betsy Koning of East AM was captured putting some of these ideas into action.
Two girls in East room had come to her to complain about the behavior of three boys in the playhouse. Koning immediately defused the situation by kneeling down to their level and asking all of the children for their point of view. When they had all made their opinions clear, she was firm about what behavior was acceptable or not, and then canvassed the children for how best to resolve the dispute.
It turned out that there were two problems to resolve. The boys were play-shooting at the girls, which they quickly agreed to stop when the girls made it clear they didn’t want to be a part of that game. Then the three boys had a dispute among themselves about who could play in the house. Teacher Koning helped them come up with a play situation that would include all three.
After the video was shown, Meghan Olsen from East AM walked the audience through the stages of Koning’s intervention (a role that West PM Head Teacher Tom Limbert took over at the second meeting).
Olsen pointed out how Koning had used a clear and confident voice but had not been judgmental. She had first defused the situation, then had quickly identified the issue and drawn all the children into a search for a solution. She’d also focused on the behavior and not the child. After the solution had been agreed upon, Koning had stuck around to support the new play and make sure everything was happening as all the children had agreed it would.
Talking About Art
When parents pick up their children at Bing and collect a piece of art, their most common response is: “That’s beautiful; what is it?”
In the seminar’s final presentation, Head Teacher Adrienne Lomangino suggested that such comments, however well intentioned, are not the best way to talk to children about their work.
While it’s wonderful to be authentically interested in your child’s work, Lomangino argued, parents need to understand that the child may not have been trying to do anything particularly representational. At this age they get a lot of pleasure simply from exploring the qualities of the medium (paint, or collage, or clay, for example) rather than from trying to create anything in particular.
“Acknowledge their effort, and help them see the connection between their effort and their accomplishment. But try to avoid judgments and labeling,” she advised. “Focus on the process rather than the product.”
Responding to everything a child makes as “beautiful” is not only to risk devaluing the meaning of praise for them, but can also be beside the point. “Their purpose may not have been to create something beautiful,” Lomangino said.
A better way to talk with a child about their art, she suggested, is to ask open ended questions such as: “Tell me about your painting.”
If you want to be specific, said Lomangino, “talk in the language of art. Ask about the colors, materials and tools they used. If it’s a painting, talk about texture, color, balance and movement.”
“If a painting is labeled as something, you can use that as a starting point for a conversation,” she said. “But take your cues from them.”
After the teacher presentations, there was time on both nights for questions.
One parent asked what to do when you need a child to do something important, such as act in a safe way, but they aren’t receptive. The suggested answer: acknowledge how they are feeling and then deflect the intensity (perhaps saying, “Do you need a hug?”) and then talk about how they can help do what you need them to do.
Several people wanted to know how to deal with a child who’s said she’d like to learn a skill, such as swimming, but then stops wanting to go to the lessons. The response: try acknowledging that it is hard to learn something new, then recall with them how they’ve felt the same way before and remember how that feeling changed once they mastered the new skill. Parents should also be careful not to over-schedule children with activities, the teachers felt. It may be that this sort of reluctance comes from a child who needs to have more down time to just be by himself.
Another parent asked what to do if you try to engage your child after school and they don’t want to talk. One idea was to let them get some rest and then try again later. Another suggestion was to try different phrasing. Rather than asking, “I see you went in the sand today,” which doesn’t invite much more than a “yes” response, try: “How did you get your pants so dirty!” That invites the child to tell as much of a story as they feel like sharing.
And what if your child tells you that they know something for a fact that you know is not true, such as, “I know broccoli is not good for you!”? For this a fellow parent in the audience had the answer. They’d had the same problem and had turned the family dispute into an opportunity to learn about research. The parent found a handy reference book on nutrition and read the child broccoli’s highly complimentary entry.
The Bing Parent Seminar Series is made possible through the generosity of Bing parents Violet and Evan Brooks.