How purposeful conversations with children build connections and promote learning podcast header

How purposeful conversations with children build connections and promote learning [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are joined by Rebecca Rolland, Speech-Language Pathologist, Lecturer, and Author. We discuss how to have purposeful conversations with young children and the impact these have on their growth and development.

Conversation impacts children’s daily lives so much. If they cannot communicate it is hard for them to be understood by others. It affects their relationships and self-esteem. As adults, we often come into conversations with our own agendas without meaning to. We can be in a rush, we can be wanting to teach a lesson or we can want to support children in getting where they need to be such as soccer practice. In doing this, we cut them off and do not consider their authentic interest or concerns.

All of the demands on parents and educators make it hard to do make time for meaningful conversations. We need to be compassionate with ourselves and make the time and room to have these conversations with children. Small moments of connection with children are so important and these moments accumulate.

Five or ten minutes is a great start to really sit with your children and observe what they are doing, sitting in silence and commenting on what they seem to be interested in or what they are doing. Having child-driven conversations a few times a day can alter the dynamic of their relationships drastically! This requires a mindset shift to think about how you can put aside the need for information or a lesson to be taught and be open to following the journey of the child’s curiosity. It is okay to be vulnerable and admit we don’t know things. See these questions as invitations to learn!

As adults, we tend to focus on closed-ended questions, which are important but won’t always spark deeper conversation. Ask open-ended questions such as how we might do something! The power of the back-and-forth conversation is so strong. The number of times we go back and forth links stronger to language and social growth.

After the pandemic, it is even more important for children to have conversations to rebuild and reform relationships.

Rebecca’s recommended resources

Podcast episode transcript

Rebecca ROLLAND:

And I’m hopeful, sort of as I’ve been talking about this book and sharing about it, that it contributes to kind of a broader project of helping educators realize the importance of conversations with kids. So, sort of bringing this up from not being so much a topic of awareness to something that we have at the forefront of our minds.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Rebecca, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

ROLLAND:

Thanks for having me!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, we’re delighted to have with us today Rebecca Roland. She’s a speech language pathologist, lecturer and author. We’re going to be talking to Rebecca today about conversations with children and, in particular, purposeful conversations. Such an important subject that I can certainly relate to with my two young boys. So Rebecca, let’s start off learning a little bit about you and your background and why you’ve gotten into speech language pathology.

ROLLAND:

Yes, so I’m also a parent. I’m the mom of two kids, ages five and ten. I’m also a speech language pathologist, as you mentioned. And I teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard Medical School. So, I really do wear a lot of hats. And I have been researching for the past several years the power of conversation to sort of build our relationships, but also to build children’s skills.

And I became fascinated by this when I saw how much communication and conversation impacted children in their daily lives. I worked with a lot of kids who were having speech difficulties or articulation problems and weren’t able to be understood by others. And I saw how much this really changed their relationships, how this affected their self-esteem and also how much they flourished when they were given support. And that really inspired me to look more into this field and figure out, well, how can we help all children have really meaningful and engaging conversations?

RON

And speaking as a parent, sometimes it’s challenging having conversations with children. What do you talk to them about? And I guess understanding, like, where is their language development at, versus where we are as adults, which we don’t understand necessarily very well. So, why do parents, educators, caregivers oftentimes have trouble communicating with children in the first place?

ROLLAND:

Yes, I think it’s a variety of things. But one of the biggest things is that we often come in with our own agendas, without even meaning to. So, I, as a parent, have a lot of compassion for parents and caregivers. And I realize that we can be in a rush, we can be wanting to teach a lesson or we can want to support children instead of getting to the bus or getting to soccer practice.

But in doing that, sometimes we kind of cut children off of the pass. We’re not actually sitting with them in the moment to think about what are their really authentic interests, what are their concerns – not just sort of in general, but right from moment to moment. And I think sometimes the pace of life and just the demands on parents can make it really difficult to do that. So, I think it’s sort of all the more important that we have compassion for ourselves, but also that we become more intentional sometimes about having time and room for these conversations.

RON

And any recommendations there in the pace of daily life, as you mentioned, in terms of practices for trying to have these more intentional and meaningful interactions?

ROLLAND:

Yes, I would say a lot of my work shows that really small moments of connection with children are so important. And these moments accumulate. So, as a busy parent, you don’t have to feel like, “Oh, it’s either all or nothing. Either I’m sitting, having meaningful conversations with my children or they’re on TV all day and I’m doing my work.”

So really, just to think about making a couple of times for five or ten minutes, at least at a start, a couple times a day to really sit with a child, to even start by observing them whatever age they are or whether they’re 2 or they’re 12, observing what they’re doing, just sitting in silence with them and commenting on what they seem to be interested in or what strikes their attention or answering a question they have.

Having those more child-driven conversations, even a couple of times a day, can really alter the dynamic between parents and children. And actually, in my book, I suggest a lot of conversation starters and questions to think about how we can have more of those conversations.

RON

Ooh, I’d love to hear some of those tips. And as well, is there an element of, I guess, mindset going into these conversations? Because like you said, oftentimes as adults, and maybe it’s because of our other adult conversations, we have some purpose or intent behind our questions, versus just being, I guess, more curious.

ROLLAND:

Yes, definitely. And I do think it requires a bit of a mindset shift to think about, “Well, how can I put aside, just for a moment, the need for this information or for a lesson to be taught or for something like that?” And really actually be open to following the journey of the child’s curiosity.

So, a lot of times I talk about being more vulnerable sometimes and admitting that we don’t know things. A lot of times when kids are asking hard questions, our tendency may be to want to answer them or to want to even Google them or just sort of finish the conversation. But actually, to see those questions as invitations and think about, well, if we want to have these more engaging conversations, they often start with a child’s curiosity.

So, can we sit with that curiosity, talk about what we do and don’t know, and then actually go with the child to figure it out? So, I do think that mindset shift of following a child’s curiosity, rather than having the child be the question-answerer, is a big one.

RON

And we like practical tips on the Preschool Podcast. Any of those specific questions, off the top of your head, to kind of get the curiosity flowing and get the conversation flowing?

ROLLAND:

Sure, yeah. So, I definitely think that, especially for younger kids, we often tend to focus on more closed-ended questions. So, questions with one right answer or a couple of right answers: “How many are there? What color is this? Which one do you like better?” And while those questions are important, especially for early learning, there are not always the questions that are going to spark these deeper conversations.

So for those, I really think about more open-ended questions that encourage generation of ideas and brainstorming. So things like, “How might we do something?” So for example, “How might we…” and usually thinking about stretching something. So, say a child is working on a robot. And he says, “Oh, the robot’s moving forward.” And so you might sort of play around with that idea. “How might we make it move forward faster?” Or, “What about if we made it taller? What about if we made it so it went upside down?”

And actually encouraging your child to ask those questions of you, too. So, it’s not just you proposing ideas, but to think about, well, how can you have a back-and-forth of this kind of idea generation and exploration so that a child is actually brainstorming and exploring ideas, too?

RON

Cool. And you mentioned earlier that this ability to have conversation and to talk effectively is important for children. Can you talk a little bit more about why and the benefits? And we also like to tie practice back to research in science where we can. So, what some of the science is behind that.

ROLLAND:

Sure, definitely, yes. So, we know so much now about [how] the research is kind of converging on the importance of conversation with children and especially in very different domains of their lives. So, things like building their empathy, building their confidence, helping them be more open to others and open to difference.

And one thing we actually just have recently begun to learn is the power of the back-and-forth of the conversation. So, this really means not just an adult talking to a child or at a child, but the number of times there is a back-and-forth from adult to child, child to adult, adult to child and back again. And there’s been some really interesting research out of MIT using brain imaging studies that shows that the number of times there is this back-and-forth actually does more and links more strongly to children’s language skill growth and their social skill growth, more so than just the amount of words an adult is saying.

So, that really shows us that language is social. So, when children are able to engage with it in this kind of back-and-forth, they’re building their vocabulary, but they’re also building their social skills and their ability to build relationships. So, these really don’t come in kind of separate boxes, but they’re very much interlinked.

ROLLAND:

Oh, that’s fascinating. And we’ve talked a bit about the benefits to children and conversation. What about adults? I can’t help but think a lot of us adults aren’t very great in conversation ourselves. And so maybe you could touch on that a little bit.

RON

Definitely, yes. It’s so funny that you mention that because often when I discuss these principles, so many people come to me and say, “Oh, this would be very equally applicable to adults into adult conversations. And I definitely agree. I think that once you start considering sort of what I call the ABCs of these conversations, kind of the building blocks, you can really apply them to any relationship in your life.

I think we so often miss or mishear, misunderstand each other because we aren’t truly listening. We don’t actually hear each other for what the other person’s really saying. And so I think once we start to do that, even in small ways, it really just has a profound impact on our relationships.

RON

Yeah, indeed. And communication I always think is one of, or arguably the most important, part of any relationship. And so it would be no stretch to think that when it comes to children, it’s equally super important. So, a very interesting topic. And Rebecca, you’ve also authored a book on the subject called The Art of Talking With Children [The Simple Keys To Nurturing Kindness, Creativity, And Confidence In Kids]. Tell us a little bit more about what inspired you to write the book and you know what the purpose of the book is all about.

ROLLAND:

Yes, definitely. So, this is really a combined memoir and a guidebook. So, it’s a non-academic book. And it just chronicles my journey as a person who’s fascinated by language and raising children to think about, “Well, how can we have these more purposeful conversations?” And not just in the abstract, but how can we have them in ways that relate and are actionable and practical and fun for our daily lives?

So, the goal was really to help other parents and teachers and caregivers with communication with children. And I really draw a lot from my own life, but also from cases from my clinical work as a speech pathologist. And I’m hopeful, sort of as I’ve been talking about this book and sharing about it, that it contributes to kind of a broader project of helping educators realize the importance of conversations with kids. So, sort of bringing this up from not being so much a topic of awareness to something that we have at the forefront of our minds.

RON

Yeah, very cool. Any other thoughts you want to leave our audience with before we wrap up our conversation today?

ROLLAND:

I guess one thing I would say is just that I think it’s always been important to have these kind of conversations with children, but especially now, kind of after a couple of years of lots of isolation and children having much fewer relationships and potentially feeling more lonely or more stressed. I think it’s even more important now, kind of as a way of rebuilding and reforming relationships. So, I think there couldn’t be a better time for thinking about this.

RON

Yeah, so in your work or in your opinion, do you think there has been some impact with the pandemic, just in terms of less interactions? I mean, I can certainly even feel that as an adult.

ROLLAND:

Definitely, yeah. So, I mean, there’s a range of debates on this topic. And I think there are some things that are clear, which is definitely just a rise in stress and anxiety and loneliness in children of all ages, and especially younger than we expected. And there’s also some other more subtle difficulties. So, there’s some suggestions that, for example, children sort of have more trouble reading facial expressions when adults or others are wearing masks.

So, I’m definitely pro-mask, for safety’s sake. But just to say that there are these challenges that children have faced because they aren’t actually able to get all of the cues that they were getting before. So, I think, with that in mind, it’s definitely really important to think about how we can especially enrich our talk.

RON

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense because again, I think even folks going back to the office as adults, some of their social interactions become a bit more awkward because we haven’t been so used to them. So, you can only imagine a young person who’s only just learning those things in the first place.

ROLLAND:

Exactly.

RON

Yeah, wonderful. Well, Rebecca, before we wrap up here, any professional development resources you can recommend to our listeners today to go check out on this subject, or anything else for their own learning and development?

ROLLAND:

Yes, definitely. So, one book that I found really useful, especially for parents whose children have any kind of speech or language delays, is the book, It Takes Two to Talk [A Practical Guide for Parents of Children With Language Delays, by Jan Pepper and Elaine Weitzman]. I don’t know if you know that, but it’s a really helpful book with a lot of strategies that are very specifically focused on developing language with parent and child.

RON

Awesome. And your book, The Art Of Talking With Children. Where can our listeners go to find that?

ROLLAND:

So, they can go to my website. It’s just www.RebeccaRolland.com. Or they can go on Amazon or the HarperCollins website.

RON

Okay, cool. Anything else on your website, www.RebeccaRolland.com?

ROLLAND:

Yes, there’s actually a newsletter there, as well. So, I offer tips, I take questions from readers and so on. So, I really welcome you to sign up. It’s free and you can get the newsletter there.

RON

Oh, cool. Well, this has been really fascinating. On the Preschool Podcast, we of course talk about relationships and interactions with children. But we haven’t talked so much about specifically conversations. And so it’s great to see the connection between science and practice and, for our listeners out there, how you all can think about applying this in classrooms, working with young children or for families at home. I know I’m going to go read up on this a little bit more. I’m intrigued to learn more about this important subject. So, Rebecca, thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast!

ROLLAND:

Definitely. Thank you for having me!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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