Talking Straight to Children

By Lilian Katz, November 2013

imageNot long ago I went to my physician for my annual check up. You all know what that’s like—not exactly fun!

I must have been about the 12th woman he had seen by that afternoon. As he entered the room, he said to me: “Well, Mrs. Katz, do you get a chance to get out of the house sometimes?” Not exactly the question or comment I was expecting! I calmly pointed out that I had just returned yesterday from Washington, DC, and last week from Houston and the week before that from Northern Ireland, and so forth!!!

The incident made me think that probably all occupations that involve human interactions develop clichés or standardized and routine phrases to be used during the day for regular tasks, and that these come with the job. I was reminded of that by one of my grandsons who worked for a while at his local supermarket and complained that he said maybe 1,000 times per day “Did you find everything you wanted?” and told me that by the 20th time, he really didn’t care!!

As I visit and observe teachers of young children in many different kinds of programs around the country, I am always dismayed by how frequently they move around the classroom and say to children things such as “Awesome,” “Good Job,” “Keep going…”, “That’s going well…”, and so forth.

Other clichés that come with the job are directions given to children such as “You need to sit still,” “You need to turn around,” “You need to listen,” and so forth. But children’s needs are not relevant in these kinds of situations; the teacher is trying to convey his or her wish that the child behave in a certain way. It would be more honest and meaningful, as well as realistic and clear, to say something such as “Please sit still” or “Please turn around” and then move on with the really important content of the moment.

It worries me that so few teacher-child contacts are continuous interactions. Recent evidence suggests that such meaningful continuous contingent interactions from very early in life throughout the first five or six years stimulate very important neurological development that must be accomplished by roughly about the age of 6.

So, as teachers of young children, let’s take occasional opportunities to remind ourselves that the children need informative feedback with real meaning—not every five minutes, but as appropriate occasions arise, in contexts that can provoke continuous exchanges called conversations. Sometimes a participant in a conversation just nods or smiles as the sequence continues. But it is clear to all participants what the others mean. Engaging in such intentional interactions may mean that we have to keep the total amount of interaction lower to enable more real and informative responses rather than clichés.

So let’s keep in mind that frequent and empty phrases may just be a risk of our profession that we should watch out for.

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Ask Useful QUESTIONS. Really IMPORTANT.

There’s a world of difference between useful questions and useless questions.

What’s the difference? Useful questions help to focus attention on intended goals. Useless questions focus on the pain required to achieve those intended goals.

The illustration at the top of this article pretty clearly demonstrates how a useful question leads attention towards focusing on the long view for achieving intended goals. Focusing on the long view helps to keep attention away from immediate downsides and discomforts. When we help our students develop and maintain focus on the long view, we’re helping them to build growth mindset.

An unhelpful or even downright useless question focuses attention on short-term gains. And short term gains rarely, if ever, develop growth mindset.

Ask the right questions to get the right results.
USEFUL questions can help maintain attention on the long view for growth mindset.
It’s not just what we ask, but also HOW we ask …

When we ask one of these questions that we hope will help to develop growth mindset, let’s always remember that wordless communication has a significant effect. Can we ask useful questions with genuine respect? Can we ask useful questions with authentic openness to whatever answers the students have, so that openings are created for honest, 2-way discussions?

Whenever our students feel genuinely heard, like all human beings, they’re much more likely to also listen. (Maybe not right away, but if they get used to being heard -genuinely, with respect and undivided attention- they’ll be more open to genuinely, with respect and undivided attention, listening to others.)

IF & WHEN we ask useful questions with a true sense of positive expectation for the wisdom of our students, they will pick up on it. (Because, as you know and experience every day, we’re all picking up on each other’s unspoken signals, feelings and judgments, pretty much all the time. Right?!!)


A few more examples of USEFUL questions to help grow students’ growth mindset …
  • What do you think you might be missing?
  • What are some ways you could look at this in completely different ways?
  • Are you on the right track, but just missing a few pieces?
  • Would brainstorming with someone else help?
  • What do you think would hurt more: Giving up   OR    Making the extra effort to train your brain to eventually get it?

Conversation Starters to Grow GROWTH MINDSET

Sometimes kids (little ones and big ones) have resistance to our direct efforts to grow their growth mindset. That’s when questions that are actually conversation starters, can help.

Conversation implies all kinds of POSITIVES:     √ Respect for students’ perspective and problem solving abilities    √ Interest in what they think and feel and deal with     √ Engagement with their values, their priorities     √ Trust in students’ intentions     √ Listening, really listening

Listening is most important

When kids receive quality attention, on a regular basis, to express themselves – especially with regard to their challenges – they get to directly experience that they matter. When they feel that all-important sense of mattering, then the effort it takes to overcome challenges is much more likely to matter, too.

Of course, listening to endless, random complaints and whining doesn’t have much value for anyone.

Complain - meh! Problem solve - YEAH!
Complaining is very different from intentional problem solving.

But respectful conversations that start with respectful questions … now that’s a different story.  Try it, and let us know how it goes. We’d LOVE to hear your experiences.

 

3 Ways to Help Students Who Are in Pain

Young people experiencing anxiety, sorrow, depression, hurt feelings, social isolation – any emotional pain –  are seriously handicapped in their ability to learn. Teachers can help these students, without ever analyzing the source of those students’ problems.

Get Kids Moving

All kids, to one degree or another, are kinesthetic learners. Engaging their bodies in whatever lessons we’re trying to teach makes life and learning easier for everyone!

Working movement into as many lessons as possible might seem like a tall order, but the rewards can be worth the extra effort. Try:

  1. Role-playing right in the middle of story time.
  2. Pantomime opposites during vocabulary lessons. (The teacher can say the word big, and the children can pantomime small.) Here’s link to a starter list of 38 opposites.
  3. Get kids learning to rhythmic beats. Kids of all ages can learn just about anything (letters, numbers, multiplication tables) while moving to a rythmic beat.

    Emotional pain limits learning. Rhythm is the antidote.
    When kids are in motion, they’re not in as much emotional pain, so learning is easier.
Get Kids Laughing

Laughter has the power to fuel engagement and help students learn. It’s the best medicine … we all know it. And science confirms it: when we laugh, cortisol (the stress hormone) is reduced. Other benefits include:

  1. Release of health-giving chemicals into the brain.
  2. Building a sense of togetherness and trust.
  3. Triggers creative thinking.
Laughter is good for the brain and the heart.
When kids are in emotional pain, laughter is the best medicine. Fun is the kindest cure.
Get Kids Thinking and Problem Solving Together

Peer group discussions can provide important opportunities for kids to:

  1. Express their own understanding in their own words, and discover their significance when peers and the teacher actually listen to them.
  2. Learn that others feel and understand in ways to which they can relate, even if not the same ways. Thus, they discover the significance of others.
  3. Grow in a sense of belonging, which is the opposite of pain causing isolation and loneliness.

How can that kind of a meaningful experience be consistently brought into the classroom?  It’s relatively easy:

  1. Find images of situations with which all the students are familiar and, to one degreee or another, are challenged by.
  2. Before showing the picture to the kids, create a list of 10+ open-ended questions that respect, and age-appropriately challenge, the kids’ intelligence.
  3.  Ask the questions – then really, really listen to the kids’ answers. These discussions are not the time for lectures. When one question stops eliciting engaged discussion, ask another one, and be sure to get as many of the kids talking and sharing their ideas as you can.
Emotional pain can be lessened with the feeling of belonging.
When kids participate in RELEVANT group discussions, they feel like they matter and that they belong.

Here’s a link to receive some specific ideas for helping bring kids into alignment with their own inner resources and strengths. We want to help kids learn, and sometimes we first have to help them be open to learning. Try any and all of the above 3 evidence-based approaches and then leave a comment with your results.

Inspiration: Brains in Pain Cannot Learn! | Edutopia,    Using Humor in the Classroom | NEA, Validation and Alignment

Empathy and Self Control: Connected in the Brain

Empathy requires going beyond immediate self interest. Self-control is essentially empathy for one’s future self.

Empathy and self control are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites impulsivity and selfishness.

Neuroscientists have reached consistent agreement about the part of the brain where empathy activates responses. What’s fascinating is that current research is linking this same part of the brain with self control.

Can Empathy be Taught?

From the Kids’ Own Wisdom perspective: NO. And from the neuroscience perspective, I imagine the answer would be the same. So, what to do? Empathy is essential for humanity to remain humane.

Empathy can be drawn out. Empathy can be exercised. Several programs are succeeding at just that task. ROOTS OF EMPATHY is one time-tested program:

A growing number of educators and social entrepreneurs across the country are discovering that the secret to learning empathy, emotional literacy, self-awareness, cooperation, effective communication, and many of the other skills classified as “social and emotional learning,” lies in experience, not in workbooks and rote classroom exercises.  Unleashing Empathy: How Teachers Transform Classrooms With Emotional Learning

Enlivening empathy - naturally.
Babies brought into classrooms are wordlessly enlivening young students’ empathy with the ROOTS OF EMPATHY program.
Dogs in Classroom Help Children Learn Empathy

A South Carolina education program is proving that dogs themselves can do plenty of teaching:  Healing Species, sponsored by the Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault, is a compassion education and violence prevention program being taught in two schools in Florence and Darlington Counties. There is high hope that these programs will expand to other schools.

The concept is pretty simple: bring kind rescue dogs into classrooms to help kids learn empathy and pique their interest in difficult subject matter. But the effects are profound.

“Even for my toughest kids, the most street savvy, it almost physically transforms them into a child with empathy. I’ve got guidance counselors giving me specific instances where students are applying what they learned and taking care of each other when that wasn’t there before.”

Healing Species develops empathy in students.
HEALING SPECIES is a highly effective school program that brings dogs into classrooms to facilitate the development of empathy in young students.

Kids’ Own Wisdom is another effective approach that does not attempt to teach empathy. Instead, peer group discussions are structured around SOARR-ing questions to evoke kids natural inclination to collaboratively solve problems. Kids willingly (enthusiastically, even) resolve their own challenges. They just need the right kinds of questions,  under the right circumstances (peer group discussions) to ‘spark’ their innate creativity and perspective taking abilities. 

Did you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagine that neuroscience would combine with babies and dogs to help us help our students create better lives for themselves?  Fascinating times, to be sure.

Neuroscience Explains: The Empathy-Self Control Connection

An interesting experiment helped to demonstrate this connection: Volunteers saw a picture of a man standing in a room with red discs on the wall. The volunteers could see all the discs, but they had to try to estimate how many the man in the room could see. This required them to shift their perspective to the man’s, and they were less able to do this when the rTPJ, (the location of empathy in the brain, as identified by scientists), was disrupted. What’s even more fascinating, this experiment predicted both impulsivity and selfishness – the opposites of self control and empathy – as measured in different experiments.

Long term consequences

Impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy. Perhaps this is why people who show dark traits like psychopathy and sadism score low on empathy but high on impulsivity.

Perhaps, also, it’s why impulsivity correlates with slips among recovering addicts, while empathy correlates with longer bouts of abstinence. These qualities represent our successes and failures at escaping our own egocentric bubbles, and understanding the lives of others—even when those others wear our own older faces.

Source: Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self – The Atlantic

Perspective Taking is a 21st Century Skill

Open-minded people are psychologically and emotionally flexible enough to consider alternative solutions. When open-mindedness is combined with solid self-worth, constructive outcomes are likely.

It’s inevitable: people see things differently… even when they’re standing close and looking at the same situation or event. Different perspectives can cause a lot of problems, or they can improve situations. Totally depends on everyone’s perspective taking abilities.

Why are there individual perspectives?

Basically all our experiences – situations, events, what other people say and do – are up for interpretation. Interpretation is based on lots of known, and a variety of unknown, elements: past experiences, culture, faith, family values, personal preferences and previous associations to name a few. Differences don’t need to imply right or wrong … they’re just different. Period.  Even little kids “get that,” when they’re given the chance.

Provide students with multiple opportunities to exercise their own hard-wired curiosity about other peoples’ perspectives – with zero pressure for them to agree. Chances are pretty good that those kids will be inclined to open-mindedly consider others’ thoughts and feelings before arriving at their own final conclusions.

Open-minded people are psychologically and emotionally flexible enough to consider alternative solutions. When open-mindedness is combined with solid self-worth, constructive outcomes are likely.

What would the world be like without different perspectives?

For starters, life would be monumentally BORING. Creativity would be non-existent. But look at the bright side: there wouldn’t be any disagreements.  Zzzzzzzzzz!!!

Is there a way to have the best of both? Of course there is. Bring together groups of peers to objectively discuss situations and challenges familiar to everyone in the group. It really helps to show a picture of the scenario you choose to have the kids discuss. Be prepared with a list of 10-20 questions that respect kids’ intelligence in order to facilitate the most successful perspective-taking exercises.

Questions that communicate respect for kids’ intelligence and problem solving abilities are: √ Open-ended.  √ Unpredictable, but relevant.   Here’s a full example for trying out with your 5-7 year old students.  (Read through all of the questions ahead of time, so you can maintain the discussion’s momentum.)

Check out these additional resources for supporting your success at increasing the perspective taking skills of all grade levels.

Growth Mindset and the MAGIC WORD

Most teachers and parents understand that when we step in and solve children’s problems we’re not doing them any favors. Not really. Not in the long run. But when kids’ frustration builds and they get close to quitting, sometimes it just feels easier to get everyone (including us) past obstacles and into solution territory.

Rather than solving kids’ problems, if we’re truly committed to preparing them for a lifetime of challenges (problem-solving opportunities), we should commit to helping them build growth mindsets.

There are many ways to encourage growth mindset. Unfortunately, there are also many ways to discourage growth mindset.

To make sure we are doing all the right things to encourage perseverance in our students, our children, and even ourselves – let’s get clear on what growth mindset is.  According to psychologist, Carol Dweck who popularized the term in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, people [of any and all ages] with growth mindset …

“… believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

How do we nurture kids’ perseverance? Well, we could follow Yoda’s approach by being really good examples – which, of course, is never a bad idea. Check out this video:

Yoda's instruction to Luke Skywalker, interpreted through the lens of GROWTH MINDSET.
Yoda’s instruction to Luke Skywalker, with a contemporary interpretation. (Thanks to Linda Lewis)
We should definitely avoid these common mistakes
  1. Praising effort alone: “Great effort” has become the consolation prize for children who aren’t actually learning. In other words, “Great effort” translates to “ineffective effort,” which sends the totally wrong message.
  2. “Try harder” is more empty feedback.
  3. “You can do anything” does not magically make it so. Students need knowledge, skills, strategies, and resources to solve their problems.
  4. “You’re so intelligent” and “You’re so smart” are actually counter-productive messages. (Many teachers have known this for decades, and instead use more specific statements: “You really stuck with that math problem until you figured it out. Wow.”)
  5. Scolding and shaming for not persevering and learning effectively. OUCH.

Excerpted from Edutopia article by Carol Dweck

So … what’s so magic about the word “YET” when seeking to nurture growth mindset?

It’s not just what we say … it’s how we say it.

“Yet,” when spoken with genuine respect for effort, can lighten the crushing effects of accumulated frustration. Acknowledgement of effort – when it’s REAL, rather than empty, consolation prize praise – helps to keep minds + attitudes open for learning new strategies.

Hard work is still ahead. “YET” provides a ray of hopeful sunshine to keep on keeping on.

Being "seen" when making an honest effort helps to neutralize frustration.
“YET” is a magic word, but only if we say it with genuine acknowledgement of observed effort.

 

Observational Learning is Important in Socialization Process

OBSERVATIONAL LEARNING, sometimes referred to as vicarious reinforcement, can take place at any point in life. It’s most common during childhood as children learn from the authority figures and peers in their lives. It plays an important role in the SOCIALIZATION PROCESS.

The Kids’ Own Wisdom approach makes constructive use of this researched and well-documented fact about learning by creating specific opportunities for children to think together, problem-solve together, and to act upon their conclusions together.

Factors That Influence Observational Learning – Psychologist Albert Bandura (describing his own perspective as ‘social cognitivism’) is the researcher perhaps best identified with learning through observation.  According to Bandura’s research, there are a number of factors that increase the likelihood that a behavior will be intentionally observed and then imitated. Among them:

  • People who are similar to us in age, sex, and interests

  • When the situation is confusing, ambiguous, or unfamiliar

The key element to note in Bandura’s highly regarded observations is that peers learn from peers. Peers are highly motivated to pay attention to peers for all the obvious reasons – acceptance and trust being prime among those reasons.

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.”
-Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977
Teachers do well when they make use of the facts about how real learning happens by creating groups discussions around topics that are 100% relevant to their students. Care must be taken, though, to assure that students feel respected enough in these discussions so they can exercise their own creative problem-solving skills to arrive at their own most balanced and constructive conclusions.

Deep Thinking Trumped by “Entertain Me” Culture

Concerned by the apparent fact that being entertained trumps many Americans’ inclination to engage in deep thinking? Then please read on.

True, life is a tangled mess these days. It’s stressful to the max, and people need a little ‘escape’ time, but have we gone too far in the ‘escape’ time direction? And at what cost?  

What does this have to do with our roles as educators? 

“We ask questions to discover students’ level of understanding. Then we quickly move on because we have curriculum to cover. Great teachers go a bit deeper. They ask questions that take students from surface to deep, and even inspire students to ask their own questions.

Is it harder for teachers to go deep because society likes surface? Or do we need to work harder to go deep to combat society’s need to stay at the surface level?”  Peter DeWitt

There are serious costs to not helping students gain personal satisfaction in deep thinking around challenging topics. For one, their vulnerability to unsupported claims when exposed to media, to politicians, and to sales people increases.

Students’ deep thinking ‘muscles’ must be exercised – regularly!

The ability to discern facts is a crucial skill for students to exercise and master, starting in their earliest years.  Reading, writing and numbers are important basic tools for learning, of course. Our responsibility to students, though, must expand beyond providing basic tools. We’ve got to exercise students’ ability to question and to evaluate, starting with challenges common to all of them.

How else will they develop the habit of dealing rather than avoiding? How else will they experience the satisfaction of ‘seeing through’ points of view that don’t deserve total buy in?

Exercise their deep thinking muscles when they’re young

Young kids’ natural curiosity can be easily engaged in circle time problem-solving opportunities. Ellen Booth Church, author of “Educating Next-Generation Innovators,” suggests circle time discussions. Get kids thinking together about what’s same and what’s different amongst characters in a story you’re reading to them.

The kids will probably start by identifying different visual features of the characters. That’s fine, it gets the wheels spinning. Then go a little deeper. Ask if the kids can identify similar needs and feelings amongst the characters in the story. Perhaps go from the characters‘ needs and feelings to a comparison of the students‘ own needs and feelings.

Early practice with deep thinking exercises, if handled properly, help students gain confidence in their own reasoning abilities.  With that confidence, they’re less likely to resist thoughtful analysis when challenges arise. Can you imagine how that would benefit our country?

Far-reaching benefits of deep thinking

Democracy cannot survive too much ignorance, or eroded civic knowledge, or complacency …  Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter explains this very serious concern with accessible language in thought-provoking 3 minute video.

Can we make deep thinking as engaging to our students as the 24-hour flashiness that is constantly available to them?  We can. It’s a challenge, but we can, and they’ll thank us forever if we consistently provide those kinds of meaningful opportunities.

Fortunately, creating consistent opportunities for our students’s to exercise their deep thinking skills is rewarding for us, too. We soon find our jobs becoming easier, rather than more difficult. Why? Because the students’ self-respect and mutual respect grow with this focus on their development as 21st century citizens.

Source inspirations for this post: What Presidential Candidates, Brangelina, and Reality Television Mean for Education and http://www.samchaltain.com/blog

Students Living With Adversity

Educators with behaviorally challenging students must double-down on cultivating relationships that those students feel they can trust. But, according to Dr. Ross Greene, “whether a child is behaviorally challenging or not…collaboration is the key to improved relationships, better communication, and solving problems.”

How can one teacher accomplish this with a room full of wildly diverse kids?  One way is to provide regularly scheduled peer group discussions around topics and challenges important to all the kids in the class. Kids are naturally interested in what their peers think and care about, (whether or not they’d ever openly admit it) so they’re inclined to listen to each other’s answers IF the questions used to move the discussions along are neither leading nor overly simple.

Familiar challenges at ‘comfortable’ distances

When all the kids in the peer group discussion are listening to each other, you can be listening for clues about each child’s values and personal challenges. Surprisingly, when peer discussions are objective – in other words, focused on pictures that keep familiar and relevant challenges at ‘comfortable’ distances, kids are much, much more likely to reveal their honest thoughts, feelings and insights. Those are the times when you can learn so much that will help you gain deeper appreciation for all the kids, even (and sometimes, especially) the ones who create the most challenges.

For more insights and wisdom from experienced educators: When You Can’t Relate to Your Students’ Experiences – Edwords Blog – BAM! Radio Network

Enough theory …

Okay, so enough theory.  How’s about a sample of an effective peer group discussion around PLAYING FAIR?  Check out this link.

Just remember that for peer group discussions to succeed, the teacher does not so much ‘teach’ as ‘facilitate.’  Facilitating is all about keeping discussions moving forward by asking new questions whenever the current question has lost its ‘engagement factor.’ Facilitating, more importantly, is about listening, really listening.

Real listening happens with ‘full on’ attention

Our attention – when it’s open, accepting, interested, and sensitive to our students’ unspoken messages – is one of the most nurturing ways we can, with consistency and over time, develop a sense of safety for our students who are living with adversity.   Get ready to do some powerful learning of your own. Learning that will help you create more safety and ‘belonging’ for all the kids in your class.