Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Use Your Words

Have you ever been given incomplete or confusing instructions? I have, and it can be very frustrating. Especially when you are criticized for not completing the instructions correctly.



A lot of childhood misbehavior is caused by parents, teachers, caretakers, etc. giving incomplete or confusing instructions.

Too many times children are given instructions that do not make sense. They do the best they can with the instructions they received and with what they actually understood. As parents, teachers, and caretakers it is our responsibility to use our words correctly and give instructions that are clear and easy to understand.



Here are some basic guidelines to follow*

  • Make sure you have the child's attention before you begin to speak. This is easier if you are close to the child and down on her level. A gentle hand on the arm might help, too, depending on the child and the situation. 
  • Always get down to a child's level when talking to him/her. If sitting on the floor or squatting is uncomfortable for you, try keeping a chair handy.
  • Remember that body language, tone of voice, and facial expression affect the message you deliver. The same phrase can be reassuring or threatening depending on how you say it. Words matter. Your expression and tone of voice matter just as much, and sometimes more.
  • Use simple words and short sentences. Avoid idioms and shortcuts. Try to say exactly what you mean as clearly as possible. If you do use idioms, watch for signs of confusion, and be prepared to explain them. Example: "Please sit nicely in your chair!" Most children do not know how to sit "nicely." Instead, be specific: "Sit in your chair with your hands on your lap and your mouth closed."
  • Don't be wishy-washy. If you mean no, say it. If you say no, mean it.
  • Don't ask a question or offer a choice when there isn't one. Let the children know clearly what you need from them. In particular, avoid using "okay?" at the end of directives, as in "It's clean-up time, okay?" Another example, "Would you like some peas?" If the child is required to eat peas, do not make it a question because they will probably respond with "no."
  • Don't ask questions to which you already know the answer. This applies to managing behavior as well as concept development. Don't ask a child, "Is that the way we treat our friends?" You already know that pushing another child is not a good way to treat him, but a young child doesn't yet. Likewise, ther are better ways to develop children's thinking skills than to ask them questions about numbers and colors and letters to which you already know the answer.
  • If you must interrupt children, remember they deserve the same courtesy adults expect. Say something like "Excuse me, I need you in the book corner now, please." Teach please, thank you, I'm sorry, you're welcome, and other niceties by your own modeling rather than prodding with that old "What do you say?"
  • Use praise in moderation and only when it is sincere and truly called for. When you are praising a child, be specific--for example, instead of just saying, "Good job!" follow it with the appreciated behavior: "Good job picking up the blocks." Better yet, avoid praise altogether, and comment on or thank the child for the work he/she did. For example, "You did a lot of work picking up those blocks," or "Thank you for picking up so many blocks. Look how much space there is now!"

Using correct, clear language is very important when speaking with children. If there has been "misbehavior" think about how you might have given unclear instructions. I will end this post with a couple of examples, and we would also love to hear any of your own!

Teacher has given the children finger paints to make a painting to hang in the classroom, she lets them know that they are not allowed to paint on the walls or floor. She is called to the office and, upon returning, finds the children painting all over each other! The paint was all over the paper and on the children, but nothing on the wall or floors. The teacher should have clearly instructed that the paints are for the paper only. She also could  ask the children questions such as, "Can you paint on the floor?" (no), "Can you paint on each other?" (no) "Where can you paint?" (the paper).


A teacher and her aid are getting their kindergarten class ready to play outside. They find one child sitting in the corner crying. They try to comfort the child by telling her that they will help her get ready to play outside in the snow. This makes it worse and they are very confused by her behavior since this particular girl has always loved playing outside. They later find out that this little student had overheard the teacher and aid talking about how deep the know was; "It will be hard to keep track of the kids during recess. The snow is so deep they will disappear." The little girl took this sentence literally and was very upset. 


*All information for this post was taken from the book Use Your Words by Carol Garhart Mooney.

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