Conversation and the Classroom

In a  recent exchange with a fellow teacher recently, I heard this:  “That child is finding acceptable ways to get the attention needed.”  Hm.  I thought about that.  What are “acceptable ways” to get attention?  And does every child have the same need for attention?

We all thrive on the validation of our existence.  While I was living in England I would go days without being required to appear somewhere and produce something.  The way I structured my day and  activities mattered to no one.  Being a fairly self-disciplined individual with a conscious, I couldn’t squander a dollar of Fulbright money unless that moment was justified in its connection to the work I was in Sheffield to do.  There were many days, however, that I craved acknowledgement of my alive-ness.  I bantered with the sales staff at Marks &  Spencer, (most didn’t know how to respond) and I loitered around the city center wishing for a little friendliness before things completely shut down at 6 p.m. and Sheffield citizens made their ways back to homes and proper English suppers. (I imagined.)

Because I would go days without meaningful interaction with others, I found  that often I would waken myself up with my own voice!  I would be talking and explaining in my sleep!  Deprived of the opportunity to converse with others, I had no choice but to chat it up through the night!  This was a new odd quirk for me, but it ceased once I was in a regular routine, interacting with friends, family, and co-workers once again.

But it makes me think about this way children view school.  Ask a child what part he or she likes best about school, and, unless he or she is trying to impress you, the kid will say, “Playing with my friends.”  Friends.  Play.  Two incredible components that make school more vital than just a place to learn academics.

In a report on PBS Morning Edition in 2008, researchers reported the advantages fot children who engaged in imaginative play, (one assumes with friends or alone…)  It was reported, ” It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. ”

Well, self-regulation sounds desirable in a school setting, but what about , in life?  Researcher in executive function, Laura Berk, commented .  According to Berk, one reason make-believe is such a powerful tool for building self-discipline is because during make-believe, children engage in what’s called private speech: They talk to themselves about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.

And it’s not just children who use private speech to control themselves. If we look at adult use of private speech, Berk says, “we’re often using it to surmount obstacles, to master cognitive and social skills, and to manage our emotions. Unfortunately, the more structured the play, the more children’s private speech declines.”

Think about the times you’ve explained, “Don’t mind me, I’m just talking to myself.”  Is this so strange?  Or is it a human attribute and coping strategy for being visible and present?  Conversation connects us with others.  Without chances to talk we are unsure that our presence matters.  We may even feel somewhat invisible.  Speech helps us process our thoughts.  Talking together helps us forge commonalities.  Words are places in which we hang our experiences.

The real learning in this for us as parents, educators, and humans?  Talk with kids.  Listen.  Comment.  Build on their ideas.  Speculate on the wild and imaginative.  Validate the ordinariness of life.  Encourage imaginative play.  Banter about with words.  Play Scrabble.  Make puns.  Value words in literature and in speech.  It seems that through this unique skill human beings have with a common language, close bonds are made, and success in school is improved.  And at the very least, talking with children might insure that they are heard and recognized and given attention so that there are no moments when they wonder if anyone noticed that they were there that day.




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