By Molly Breen
Our days spent with young children can often be a bit of an emotional roller coaster: high highs and low lows. Part of our daily work as educators is to provide stabilizing skills and coping that help our learners to feel equipped and empowered to express their needs and emotional experiences. As we all know, this does not happen because we “talk at” our students. Instead, social and emotional skill-building occurs when we model the behavior and practice it with our kids. Ultimately, we want to help empower our students to grow through compassionate listening and intentional skill-building. How do we teachers keep a level and impartial perspective as we help children feel seen and heard?
As both a parent and a teacher (and a spouse to my husband for 20 years), I am regularly challenged to grow in my capacity to be an active listener. Looking for personal growth is not always a natural response to these challenges! But when I employ the skills needed to really listen and respond to the needs of someone else, the outcomes are always much better than when I rely solely on my own instincts and experiences. For me, keeping the outcome of “growth” at the top of my mind helps to guide me back to active listening.
What does active listening really require?
It’s more than just intently listening to what someone is saying, or assuming we know what they’re saying, and there are concrete steps that we can take to help develop this critical teaching (and life skill). There are several common mistakes that can lead to misunderstanding or further frustration:
- Losing focus and thinking of something else (sometimes we do this because we think we are multitasking) while the other person is talking.
- Thinking about how we are going to respond while the other person is talking.
- Moving our agenda forward or listening with an outcome in mind.
As a teacher, I think about how the cadence of our days can so easily be disrupted by a child’s emotional experience. Think about it: You’re bundling up to go outdoors and someone can’t do their own zipper or someone’s parents forgot to send the “right” pair of rain pants—and a meltdown ensues. My teacher brain definitely thinks about the transition, the other children, and getting everyone outside. We’ve got a plan for our day! And my teacher brain can also acknowledge that there is more at play than the simple frustration of a zipper or the disappointment of the wrong gear. It’s the perfect opportunity to employ some active listening strategies!
It would be easy to default to any of the three mistaken responses that I listed above. Maybe you keep bundling the other children and ignore the outburst in hopes that it will subside and you can still get outside. Or perhaps you have a stock response like, “You’re okay! We will figure it out.” That might placate in the moment, but it doesn’t allow the child to be fully understood and heard. Or maybe you take the “keep it moving” approach, talking through the outburst, helping with the zipper, and shuttling the emotional child toward the door. None of these will help with skill-building and, ultimately, they will work against us in the long run because this script will replay again and again.
Here are some steps for active listening:
- Slow down and accept the need to pause and listen. Get down to the child’s level and make eye contact, if appropriate (some children do not like to be looked at when they are emotional).
- Release judgment or expectations for what should happen.
- Listen for understanding. Appreciate the perspective of the child you are listening to—even if what they are saying seems irrational.
- Ask an open-ended question such as, “What would you like me to know?”
- Summarize or repeat back what they are telling you—not in a parroting way, but instead to reassure them that you are hearing what they say.
I am guessing you can think of a time when you took the steps for active listening and a time when you did not (we’ve all been there). And I’m guessing things went very differently (both for you and for the child) in each case. There is no disputing it: when we listen actively and respond with empathy, we help build children’s social and emotional skill capacity. When we do not listen actively, we can assume that we are pressing the rewind button on a tape that will replay over and over again.
Like so much in teaching and learning with young children, these methods are effective in our personal and professional adult relationships as well! Think about what it feels like to be misunderstood or not listened to by a partner or a colleague. It’s completely disempowering. The super-extra-wonderful bonus of social and emotional teaching and learning is that we (as teachers) grow as people when we practice these skills! Instead of repeating patterns of behavior by pressing that rewind button, we can happily move forward in the script of our own lives, more empowered to be who we are because we feel understood. And our students can too.
Molly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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