In the previous Newsletter (see ‘The Importance of Emotions’ 3rd March 2020) we discussed not only the importance of the emotional condition of the student in the lesson but also the difficulty the teacher has in determining that state. To avoid misinterpreting how the child is feeling and the problems that can cause, we turned to conversation to clarify the real emotional situation. However, like all things about educating those difficult, damaged students it in very likely these kids struggle to make meaningful conversations.
It was first acknowledged as early as 1995 that children from low socioeconomic areas were behind in their language skills. Claudia Wallis in her article ‘Talking with—Not Just to—Kids Powers How They Learn Language’ (Scientific American Mind May/June 2019) points out that these kids are likely to hear 30 million less words than their peers from wealthier groups. This figure is an average, of course there are wealthy families that don’t talk that much and the converse is true but it holds as an average.
I have no problem hypothesising that children from abusive and particularly neglectful families will have an even greater disparity. The well documented effect abuse and neglect has on over all brain development will exacerbate this problem.
John Gabriel of the Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology has confirmed the early hypothesis but has realised that it is not just the number of words they hear, the quantity but the way in which they hear them, the context. That is, it is hearing the words in conversation that is the factor and the better the quality of that conversation the better the development of the child’s conversational skills. In fact, it has been calculated that every additional conversation increases the child’s verbal ability.
In a future Newsletter I will discuss the importance of self-talk in self-managing behaviour. It is widely accepted that we think in word, that is we talk to ourselves about the situation we experience. Of course, it is not that simple we experience emotions, especially things that frighten us without a dialogue. One view is that the words follow the feelings another view is the two are linked and, as we will explore, self-talk can influence emotions. Either way, kids with traumatic backgrounds are disadvantaged. First, they will have a limited vocabulary which will restrict the breath of their thinking, therefore their behavioural options. Secondly, the emotions they mainly experience will be of anxiety and fear. Therefore, we should do everything we can do to increase their conversational skills. After all self-talk is a conversation with someone who should be your best friend – yourself and so the richer we can make this the better will be our relationship with ourselves, our sense of self!!
We need to be a bit more specific when describing conversation, it needs to be a real exchange, not the teacher ‘talking’ to the student but what is described as conversational twinning or duets. This back-and-forward exchange means the student has to understand what the conversation is about, that is really comprehend what was said and then respond appropriately. For abused kids this is definitely not likely to be an easy task. They rarely participate in family conversations and are less likely to be expected to have an opinion. So, how do we develop this critical skill, for these kids in a busy classroom?
There is a wealth of excellent information on teaching conversation available on the web and teachers, especially in primary school are well trained in this practice, so the following comments, although appropriate for all students are really aimed at our special kids.
If you work in a school that has some of these students, and that most likely means all of you reading this, it is important to create a planned part of your day that provides an opportunity to develop conversation. This can be group discussions, circle activities where you create a continuous conversation one sentence per person around the circle or one on one conversations about topics you introduce. You can design spaces, say in a library that encourage children to talk together or ask open ended questions that challenge children to go deeper as they express ideas.
Be aware of the character of your students, some will love to dominate any conversation, they love the sound of their own voice. These kids can severely intimidate kids who lack the confidence to join in, they are afraid of being exposed. Don’t force the issue, if you push them to participate their anxiety will increase and the conversation will be lost. Of course, some kids are generally quiet and are happy to listen.
There are plenty of strategies, things like working in pairs, having circle discussion moving around with each child contributing to build a conversation, this encourages them to listen. As pointed out above a conversation requires the participant to understand what was said before constructing a suitable reply. Dominant members of the circle are prone to just wait for the other to stop talking so they can have their say. Teachers should be aware of this, in the unequal authority between teacher and student it is easy for the teacher to ‘know what should be done’! This is disastrous but I know I am often guilty of this very thing. If you have to, teach listening skills!
The next thing is to decide on what topics to teach. This is up to the imagination and creativity of the teacher, there is no real limit. But, it is not always easy to get the right topic at the right time. You can have the same amount of success if you have a ‘Topics Jar’ which is full of issues that will start conversations. You can just pick one out and have that as the topic of the day!
However, with our focus on helping those students with severe behaviours it is advantageous to discuss topics that will help them come to terms with their circumstances and discover new ways to approach their schooling. A couple of suggestions are:
- What are some of the things you feel grateful for today?
- What do you have but don’t need but are happy you have?
- What are some things you have that are easy to complain about but are glad you have for rainy days?
- What do you get to do that other children can’t do?
- Did you have a chance to be kind today?
- How do you think other people feel when you are kind to them?
- Who gets teased at school and why?
- How do you think the kids doing the teasing feel about themselves?
- Does anyone ever try to stop teasing?
- If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?
- Mental Health
- What feeling is the most uncomfortable – embarrassment – anger – fear – or something else?
- What are some things you could tell yourself when your brain tells you things that are too negative to be true?
- How will you face your fears?
Helping kids whose behaviour is driven from a history of abuse and/or neglect is a principled profession but it comes with an extremely challenging responsibility. However, at the heart of all their behaviours is an emotion that drives their behaviour. Helping them comprehend what is going on for them in the presenting environment requires them to think and they need the words to make that process meaningful. By improving their ability to have a productive dialogue with others strengthens their ability to talk to themselves!