I recently overheard an interaction between a child care provider and a preschooler that had me reflecting on the best ways to talk children so that it’s both respectful and effective. It was during pick-up time and the pair was in the gym. The provider was on one side, sitting down, picking up materials and the child was on the other side, playing, not wearing shoes. The provider said, “We wear shoes at school.” It wasn’t what she said, it’s how she said it; her voice was raised louder than was appropriate. She wasn’t yelling at the child and her tone wasn’t bad, it was just loud. But that’s all it was, loud. The provider didn’t leave her spot on the ground and the child still ran around the gym, laughing, not putting on her shoes.
One strategy for effective communication is to get close to the child on her level and speak softly, being very clear with the child what the choices are. If this teacher would have gotten up, walked over to the child and got down on her level, it may have gone a lot differently. She could have still begun with, “We wear shoes at school,” but then continued with options, “Do you want to put on your shoes or do you want me to help you?” “When you/then” statements work well too, “When your shoes are on, then you can play because it’s much safer to play in the gym that way.” The provider could have also made it about the safety, “I’m worried you are going to get hurt and it’s my job to keep you safe, so I am going help you get your shoes on.”
After telling the child several times to put her shoes on across the gym, the child ran up to the provider to give her a hug. The child care provider said, loudly and sternly, “No, I don’t want to hug you right now because you are not listening. Go put on your shoes.” The teacher remained on the floor and the child ran around the gym. It was obvious this preschooler was playing games or testing limits, but the way the provider reacted made it seem like not getting a hug was a punishment for not listening, which is not okay. Again, rephrasing would have completely changed the dynamic. When the child came over for a hug, a more successful and respectful response could have sounded something like, “I’m happy to give you a hug, as soon as your shoes are on. Would you like to walk over to put them on together?” It’s critical that adults are thoughtful in how we talk to children. I’ve written a previous blog about strategies to make sure interactions are nurturing and positive to guide behavior.
I walked to a classroom for a few minutes and when I walked by the gym again, the child had crawled into a large shelf, still shoeless, and the provider was still sitting on the ground. The child was in control of the situation. The provider was cleaning up which I know needed to be done because it was the end of the day, but sometimes that part of work has to wait. Perhaps once the provider supported the child in getting her shoes on, she may have been able to get her to help clean up.