Listen to Me!

The first few weeks of class each semester always keep me laughing.  Our older toddlers and preschoolers especially are bursting with funny stories the minute they walk in the door.   Sometimes it seems that I have whole classes full of kiddos with running commentary on their new pet, a trip to the ballet, eating pancakes for breakfast, oh, and their favorite spiderman shoes!  Of course, all of that comes up while we are talking about slide whistles or the park, which are clearly related topics.  I have the feeling you know exactly what I’m talking about and that your household is much the same.  Sometimes it feels like you can’t ever get a word in edgewise when your kid’s around.

Guess what?  This language explosion is a good thing and something to be enjoyed while it lasts.  Sadly the funny stories become more logical and grownup all too fast.  So, in class, you may notice that I actually make a little room for the stories rather than trying to hurry it on, so I can get to the lesson.  We won’t spend all day talking about your new dog, but I will stop to listen, make some genuine eye contact, and do my best to help the speaker feel heard.   When we take time to acknowledge these precious stories and ideas, it does three things.  First, it says, you matter and you matter to me.  That’s invaluable.  Not only do we as parents and teachers want to communicate love for our children above all else, but sending this kind of message also feeds a need that helps prepare children’s brains both to learn and to cooperate in the following moments.  Secondly, it’s modeling the important skills of listening and empathy, and lastly, it is encouraging blossoming language skills like storytelling and cognitive skills like sequencing.  Wow!  That’s powerful.

At the same time, I work hard to teach the skill of listening to one another and taking turns to speak.  These social skills take a lot of practice and are essential not only for success in school but also for learning to be a good friend, spouse, and colleague.  In the classroom, I might say “Oh, no.  Everyone’s speaking at once, and now I can’t hear anyone.  I will give everyone a turn to speak.  First I will listen to Sam, then Sara, then Lindsey.”  At home, when the sibling emotions are running too high for such logic I resort to “the talking stick”, usually a pen or other sticklike item that gives the holder the power of a turn to speak.  Surprisingly, it works like magic.

So, sometimes all it takes is “Mom is talking to Miss Joy right now.  It will be your turn next.”  However, keep in mind that waiting to speak can be extremely hard at this age, especially for 2 1/2 to 4 year olds.  Many kids can handle waiting a few moments while you talk with another adult, but their need for connection is so strong that longer conversations and talking on the phone are best saved for moments when your child is otherwise occupied.

And remember, these stories and the storytellers who share them are precious, so while sometimes it may feel frustrating to have to stop what you are doing, make sure you are carving out moments to let these little ones truly be heard.  And keep a video camera handy.  You just never know what hysterical tale you might catch!

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