The words we use have power and effect on others often beyond what we realize. There are several common things adults do in their speech that have the opposite of our desired effect on children. It will transform your teaching if you can be mindful of these common language missteps and manage to change the way you speak to children.
If you are struggling to maintain authority with your group of students. Consider this:
It could be you are subtly communicating a balance of power exists between you and the student when you need to be the authority figure.
How many times have you heard an adult say something like,
‘Bring me your plate from supper, ok?’
or ‘It is clean up time, ok?’
What we most likely mean when we say this is I want to know you have heard me and am asking for your confirmation. However the subtle effect of adding the question of ‘ok?’ to the end of our requests or instructions is ‘is that ok with you?’
Which results in removing our authority.
‘Bring me your plate from supper.’
‘It is clean up time.’
Do you notice the difference? Children do.
While it may seem like I am arguing semantics for a young child or a new language learner this is a significant shift in verbiage.
And when you say ‘ok?’ to children you are giving them the option to say no, it is not ok. Now you have a new problem on your hands.
Being mindful of this habit if it is yours and managing to stop it will instantly transform your relationship with children and give you more authority.
Many of us say this in an unconscious effort to soften our language and to be gentler in our requests of our children. This is a noble and kind thing. And as the saying goes, “the road to h-e-l-l is paved with good intentions.”
When we have a loving connection to children in our hearts and we are calm and grounded in ourselves we no longer feel the need to ‘soften’ our language because we are soft in ourselves. We become what is known as a loving authority.
We can accomplish the same thing by saying ‘thank-you’.
Thank-you communicates an assumption that the request will be met. It is kind and we get to keep our power.
There is this interesting bit of psychology that points to our tendency to ignore the word ‘don’t’ or ‘not’ when we are given an instruction.
The words, ‘walk please’ are more effective than saying, ‘don’t run’.
‘Stop hitting’ works faster than ‘don’t hit.’
There are all sorts of reasons as to why this is.
My theory regarding why this is so powerful with children is that children have limited life experience. When you tell them what NOT to do they have to do some mental gymnastics to try and figure out what they should be doing instead.
Children who have strong attachment to their caregivers naturally want to be in harmony with them by following instructions or rules. We are naturally conflict adverse (well most of us ????).
That is why telling children what TO do instead of what NOT to do is such an effective language trick.
‘Throw rocks towards the creek’ is a more helpful instruction than, ‘don’t throw rocks’ because it immediately tells the child what they ought to be doing.
It can be a kind of mental gymnastics for us to try and imagine how to turn our language around and give instructions in a way that shows children what behaviour you are asking of them.
But it will give you greater success with your students.
As with anything it comes with practice.
So what do we say?
Current best practice in Early Childhood Education is to narrate what you observe a child doing to connect a child to their experience, give them language to describe it and make them more aware of their environment.
‘Your soup has lots of chunks in it.’
‘You are standing on a slippery branch.’
While it may feel trivial to state the obvious over and over if you observe children’s reactions to your simple observations you can see how much power the art of noticing has on your relationship. It is a form of connection to carefully observe.
A child may not have even noticed their soup was lumpy and begins to remove leaves and rocks and adds water to achieve a different result.
They may move more slowly when they climb down from the tree now that they are aware of how precarious their situation is.
The lesson here is what you say matters.
The way you use language has an effect on your teaching and all of us could do better. We all have said things and then immediately realized the error of our words. The practice we are calling you to here is to correct it.
Stop. Rewind. Say it again in a different way.
Our working memory only last 15 seconds.
If you say it again they won’t remember what you said the first time.
So correct yourself. Practice. Be mindful of what you say.