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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