How to Talk to Children
By Neely Zangenehzadeh, Assistant Teacher
Have you ever felt like you didn’t know the right thing to say when helping a child in a challenging situation? Here’s the good news: There is no single right answer. As explained at the parent seminar held April 19, there are many effective ways of handling challenging situations with children. Four panelists, teachers Peckie Peters, Emma O’Hanlon, Quan Ho and Tom Limbert, outlined methods that teachers use to promote effective communication in the dynamic classrooms at Bing Nursery School.
When children enter their classroom at Bing, they are presented with a multitude of activities from which they can choose to spend their day. Some immediately run to the sand area, where teachers have carefully arranged shovels, buckets and pitchers of colored water that may be used for cooking. Others paint pictures on the easels or ask teachers to help them use a hammer and nails at the woodworking table. Bing overflows with enriching activities for children. However, along with these engaging activities come challenges.
Children constantly face social situations that require them to negotiate with their peers. For example, Mateo runs to the sand area to dig a hole with his favorite red shovel, but Tommy is already using it to make a volcano. Mei-Mei is building a tall tower for the princess puppet that she made, but Alex walks by and knocks it down. These are common situations that occur at school that call for teachers to carefully guide young children in order to effectively solve problems with their peers.
The panelists discussed methods used at Bing to promote effective communication during challenging social situations. They explained to a crowd of roughly 80 Bing parents that learning effective communication is an ongoing process that lasts a lifetime. As parents and teachers, we work together to offer children the best tools possible to express themselves. In her introduction, head teacher Peckie Peters comforted parents by explaining that it is natural for children to experience a variety of emotions. But sometimes a child’s manner of expressing those emotions is unacceptable. It is our job as parents and teachers to show children the appropriate words and actions they can use to express themselves.
Center PM teacher Emma O’Hanlon gave an overview of Bing’s philosophy on how to guide children in their play. She posed the question, “What can we do to help children become better communicators?” and gave suggestions for parents on how they can maximize time spent with their children. Everyday strategies such as talking to children at eye level, using a calm voice and actively listening model strong daily communication skills for children.
O’Hanlon stressed the importance of “floor time,” a block of time as short as 15 or 20 minutes each day during which parents participate in their child’s play while following their lead. She emphasized that giving children full attention, communicating with them at eye level and letting them take the lead helps develop a trusting relationship that may counterbalance other moments of frustration. Narrating their behavior vocally can also be beneficial, particularly for children who are learning to speak. For older children, asking open-ended questions that are within their ability level can also help children become better problem solvers. For example, if you see your child is building a tall unstable tower, you might say, “I see your tower is shaking. What can we do to make it stronger?” This kind of open-ended question allows them to develop and test solutions for the problem.
O’Hanlon stressed the value to children of quality time spent with an adult. She explained that consistently modeling appropriate language and behavior for children and helping them identify their needs and read social cues is critical to the process of learning effective communication.
Next, teacher Quan Ho from the East AM classroom provided concrete examples of conflict resolution strategies. Ho posed specific conflicts involving children and walked through the steps of reaching a resolution. He explained that the adult’s role is to act as a mediator and to help children actively participate in conflict resolution themselves. Ho gave an example of two children arguing over the use of a swing at school.
Ho explained that teachers first try to defuse the conflict and make sure that the children are safe. In the case of the swing, the teacher makes sure the children move away from the swing until a solution is reached. Once teachers have created a safe environment they help children identify the problem and explain the situation. To achieve this, teachers position the children so they are facing one another in close proximity. This allows the children to look each other in the eye while the adult paraphrases the problem that they describe.
Having children actively participate by generating ideas and possible solutions is a key step in the learning process. It helps them gain multiple perspectives, said Ho. As adults we can listen to their ideas and offer possible solutions. Once the children reach a fair solution, teachers help them implement their plan. Perhaps most important, stressed Ho, is discussing what children can do “next time” when a conflict occurs.
The final panelist, head teacher Tom Limbert, stressed the importance of language and explained that often children enter conflicts due to the absence of specific language. Limbert explained, “Key phrases such as “Can I have a turn?” or “I don’t like that” are often missing in social conflict among young children. Adults can suggest these phrases to their children in times of conflict. He also explained that language is a tool to help children express frustration. As adults we can help them find the language they need to express themselves.
Limbert also discussed adult-to-child language when setting limits. He advised giving children an explanation when establishing boundaries. He explained that as adults offer explanations children begin to learn values. Then over time, children will develop an ability to be self-regulated when an adult is not present. However, Limbert emphasized the importance of being consistent when setting limits for children. “Set the standard and uphold it!” Limbert recommended.
A question and answer session concluded the evening with a broad array of topics ranging from questions like “Should I make new food if my daughter says her chicken is too slippery?” to “What do you do if you think your child is lying?” The panelists and other teachers in the audience gave a variety of solutions to each question. These suggestions reinforced the idea that many successful approaches to communication with children exist. Developing this skill is a lifelong learning process for people who interact with children.