Great conversations make us feel good about ourselves and our place in the world, no matter how old we are. Orders, directions, and demands for information, on the other hand, make us feel at best dutiful and at worst, resentful and annoyed. Often we fall into a pattern of verbally directing and demanding without intending it because our time is short and stress is high. It’s all too easy for it to happen in our interactions with young children, too.
It doesn’t take much to move away from issuing directions and requesting information, and over to conversing with our fellow humans, and when you apply these tips from Amplify’s editor Bec Lloyd, you may find yourself enjoying richer interactions with the children at your service as well as the adults in your sphere.
Got tips on having rich conversations with children? Please share them in the comments at the end of this article!
Talk between two or more people in which thoughts, feelings, and ideas are expressed, questions are asked and answered, or news and information is exchanged
Source: Cambridge Dictionary
Most of us could use some help holding genuine, free-flowing conversations with other adults, and nearly all of us can improve the way we converse with children.
You may feel you speak with children constantly, but how much of that speech is simply direction or information, and how much is conversation that meets the definition above?
The need for high quality interactions between educators and children is embedded throughout the National Quality Standard. Such interactions frequently rely upon spoken exchanges that allow children to explore ideas and feelings, solve problems, analyse situations, absorb new information and more.
Simply telling a child to be safe, be quiet, listen now, sleep now, or eat all their vegetables won’t count for much in a quality educational program. Conversing, on the other hand, opens up your interactions to interpretations of meaning and opportunities to extend every experience.
The Parenting Research Centre describes verbal interactions with children as a kind of ball toss. The spoken tossing of ideas and expressions back and forth between interested adults and children helps build understanding, connections, problem-solving and many other important foundation skills for children’s development in their early years.
Wellbeing for all
Alongside delivering respectful, high quality learning programs, strong conversation skills also play a role in educator wellbeing. When you know how to converse, not just direct, your day becomes richer, your time feels better spent, and your satisfaction in your role deepens.
Improving your conversation skills with children means being a better conversationalist with adults too – and that means the chance to build and improve better relationships with your colleagues, staff, families and in your personal life. Win-win!
A simple guide to better conversations
the biggest distraction in any conversation is not external events
1. Be present.
Your attention will frequently be divided while working with children – unavoidably when your supervision is required for their safety. You may have to keep half an eye on other children in the room or garden, but that’s all right because the biggest distraction in any conversation is not external events. The biggest distraction lives between your ears. Let’s call it your Invisible Voice.
Here’s an example of how it works. Imagine a child beside you is telling you about the snail trails they saw on their front path this morning. That Invisible Voice instantly conjures up three facts you know about snails and one you’re not sure of but want to check. It’s recalling one anecdote about snails from your childhood, and one from your own garden last week. It’s now trying to get you to scroll through a mental list of extension ides for snail related activities…
In other words, you’re not really there. You’re off in your own head. Quell your Invisible Voice, and be present.
Open questions invite the other person to explain
2. Use open questions.
Questions are an important part of good conversations, but not all questions are created equal.
A closed question typically has a one word answer like yes or no. Are you having a good day? Do you need help with that? Are you thirsty?
Open questions invite the other person to explain, tell a story, or share a feeling. These questions tend to start with the words Who, What, Where, When, Why, or How.
Why did you like that game? Who did you walk with to the park? When do you think you’ll be finished? Where should we go for our story today?
Open-ended questions create conversations.
A mystery in the age of Google?
3. If you don’t know, say so.
Here are seven little words that open up a conversation to everyone: I don’t know, what do you think? It’s okay to let children know that adults don’t have all the answers. It doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human. Admitting you don’t know something gives you a chance to share ways that you and the children can now find the answer: open a book, ask another person, search the internet, create an experiment.
Saying I don’t know and inviting discussion helps children understand we all keep learning through our lifetime.
Sometimes no one knows the answer anyway. A mystery in the age of Google? That’s worth talking about!
let them ask you for more information
4. Details don’t matter.
Conversational flow stops when you rack your brain for the exact date, name, location or other detail that you think is essential to your reply to a child’s question or story. Searching your memory creates a dull moment that disrupts your thoughts and loses the attention of others.
If children or other adults think they have missed something in your conversation because you’ve skipped a detail, let them ask you for more information. So if you find yourself bogging down and your conversation partners’ attentions are wandering, try saying: that part doesn’t matter, what was interesting was…
You may be a teacher, but you can still learn something new from every person you converse with
Is this skill so obvious it shouldn’t even be on the list? Possibly, but what’s worth saying about listening is that it is hard work. It’s tiring to stay focused on what someone else is saying, especially if their story meanders around or involves people you don’t know, and many children’s conversational stories will do exactly that.
Recognising that listening is hard work and requires emotional energy is half the battle.
The other half?
To listen with the aim of learning. You may be a teacher, but you can still learn something new from every person you converse with, no matter how young or how familiar they are. Try it today!