By: Kelly Burns and Courtney Kenney
At his grandmother’s wake, John kept to himself and did not talk to anyone. He was playing with his Matchbox cars. I don’t even think he saw me enter the room. I watched him very closely. He was playing a game with his cars where he would crash them together and proceeded to make noises associated with a car crash. He then took his car and rolled it right in the middle of a crowd of people, one of whom almost stepped on the car. John’s 16-year-old brother Charlie witnessed the accident and scolded him for disrupting the wake. Charlie took john’s cars and placed them in his pocket. John lunged at his brother crying and screaming to get his car’s back but Charlie proceeded to ignore him and told him to “Stop acting like a baby”.
John is a third grader who has been living next door from Courtney for a few years. Courtney spent the 2008-2010 school years babysitting John and his two older siblings. Recently there was a devastating tragedy in John’s family, his grandmother passed away. Discussing about this observation of John’s behavior at his grandmother’s wake, it struck us that we may have students in our future classes that will be dealing with some sort of death or tragedy and that if we do not pay attention or listen to them carefully, we would not understand the context for their behaviors.
We are two graduate students in an introduction to educational research class. When we began discussing our own experiences with children outside the classroom (for Courtney) as well as observations in k-2 classroom setting (for Kelly), we realized that what we were really interested in was to answer the question: How can we practice different ways of listening to children?
This study began to interest us when we used our own experiences. This research has opened our eyes to how important it is to listen to children differently; not simply through their words, but also through their actions, through what they say, the questions they ask and the conflicts they are in.
Through our research we discovered many popular articles, podcasts and videos discussing ways to communicate with children. One common problem all these different texts highlight is how adults (both parents and teachers) are simply not listening to their kids.
Review of literature:
Through review of research and popular texts we found two important themes for those of us who are learning to be teachers. First that adults are not listening to children, and second, what are children actually saying when they speak and are listened to?
1. Adults are not listening to children
We looked at “Take a moment to listen”: a pamphlet by the Center for Health Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness (Chetna) that is typically distributed in any health care setting. “Listening is a part of the Child’s Right to Participation that is one of the four groups of child rights covered by the UN-CRC1 announced in 1989,” (Chetna, Take a Moment to Listen). The pamphlet highlights the reasons adults do not listen to children. Some reasons are because listening is not a regular practice, adult listening is not very common and listening is not considered important as much as speaking skills. For example, there are awards for speaking skills but there are hardly any awards for listening skills. Listening is hard to do. It is more than hearing sounds. Listening means thinking about the things you hear and requires time and the attitude. Speaking allows us to control and direct where as listening puts us at the receiving end. Adults feel that only experience can teach and hence they have nothing to learn from children as children lack experience. These reasons seem more like excuses to us. That is why not listening to children is the problem. “Listening to children is not only important, it’s their right to be heard,” (Chetna, Take a Moment to Listen).
Heshusius (1995), discusses how when having a conversation with others we tend not to listen to who’s speaking as well as we should. Heshusius (1995) took this idea and implemented it to talking to children. He used his college students, those who were soon to be teachers, and gave them the assignment to talk to a child, about what, was up to the child. He wanted his students to truly listen to a child and hear what they have to say because in the world of education, the teachers do all the talking. The majority of people listen to others only to think of what they will say next. Do you truly listen to people when they talk or do we just sit there quietly waiting for our turn? What we are doing in the classroom as teachers is a problem. Teachers and adults assume what a child wants and needs and a child’s actual thoughts and opinions get tossed to the side. Heshusius (1995) concluded that he hopes “the students have experienced more consciously what it is like to deliberately let go of the self, thereby discovering how much they can relate as people to the youngsters they will teach. To hear youngsters we must get ourselves out of the way”.
When we are listening to children what is it that they are actually saying? Children are intelligent human beings and have the right to express themselves in school as well as in the home. Through our research we found similarities of when children actually communicate with adults they make it a point to be heard, understood and appreciated.
2. When Kids do speak what do they say?:
Alison Cook-Sather (2009) talks about the Teaching and Learning Together Project where the focus is on students teaching the teachers. It goes into a review of researchers arguments for listening to students as well as a description of the project and the teachers who were involved. “These teachers work in the public school system and emphasize how the project allows them to reassess the student own experiences in schools. They got a clear picture on what it means to really listen to their students. These teachers learned how important it is to take students points of view seriously and to recognize how much more interested and engaged in their own learning students were when teachers were actually listening and responding to them,” (Cook-Sather, Alison, Pg. 176).
These students had control over their own teaching and learning. This project was conducted in a high school setting but it can definitely work in an elementary school setting as well. Students being involved in their own curriculum planning as well as being able to peer teach is a great way to hear their voice and opinions. If students can be this involved with their learning then they can also be involved in the way they are assessed.
In a study done by Cushman (2009) he and his high school from New York City came up with the idea, along with other teachers, to form and put together their own version of the SAT which is more relevant to the lives of urban youth. They called the test, SAT Bronx; a test made up of words and stories of the experiences given to them from actual students living as urban youth. The students decided to change the stories that were used in the test as part of the reading comprehension section to stories they would understand. The stories would relate to inner city living, and the difficulties a teen in the inner city may face.
The idea of the SAT Bronx brought greater willingness to the students to take part in such a standardized test. The urban youth in New York City know what it is like to grow up in an area like theirs, so why not give them a test they can relate to? Karima, an 11th grader stated to Cushman that “we wanted to turn the tables around, and actually have situations and experiences on the test that dealt with us”. The students Cushman had worked with had a positive feeling about the work they were asked to do and enjoyed the idea of relating the test to their lives. Cushman (2009) got to the core idea of hearing what students need and that they want to be understood.
Wouldn’t it be nice to actually hear from children on their thoughts about adults listening skills. In this blog you will see a link to a pod cast we researched called “How to Listen to Children”. In the beginning of this pod cast we hear children talking to the broadcaster about questions they hear from adults. It’s always the same thing. You can hear the frustration in their voice. They also discuss that adults are not age appropriate and speak to them like they are “babies”. If they are asked the same thing repeatedly and spoken to in a juvenile manor, what makes us as adults think that they would even want to communicate with us?
Data Collection/ Data analysis:
We collected our data through observing kindergarten through 3rd grade classroom settings. These observations spread out between the two of us were about 20 hours. During our observations we learned a lot about listening to students through the actions they do, the things they say, the questions they ask and the conflicts they have. Courtney observed in a bilingual Kindergarten class as well as first through third grade classrooms with mostly African American and Hispanic students. The school consisted of lower income families and the surrounding suburban area was of mostly African American and Hispanic decent.
Kelly observed in a Kindergarten through third grade classroom setting on Long Island where the school was mainly children of Caucasian ethnicity but was diverse a bit. The school was a mixture of lower-middle income families.
In addition to the observations, each of us also conducted interviews. Courtney interviewed Ms. Hatcher a bilingual Kindergarten teacher. Her interview was about a half hour long and it was transcribed in a question and answer form. Kelly interviewed 13 Kindergarten through third grade students in an afterschool program she works at. Her interview consisted of sitting down and speaking to children about what they find enjoyable, about going to their class everyday and what they find difficult.
Both of us have had prior experiences inside as well as outside the classroom with observing and interacting with children between the ages of 5 and 9. We told each other our memories of these observations, which we also included as vignettes in our data. As we read through all the data that we collected, we categorized our interpretations into five different themes, bullying, behavioral issues, new baby, moving and Death. When observing and listening to the children we tried not to interact with them and pull information out of them, we simply sat and observed them or let them come to us and talk. We tried to follow Heshusius’ (1995) methods of listening to children.
Through our observations in a classroom setting we both have witnessed bullying situations. Bullying is very different between genders as well as age groups. Courtney was observing in a kindergarten class and witnessed a situation between three young girls. Two of the girls were picking on the third by repeatedly pinching her and then when she pinched them back they would run and tell the teacher. The young girl who was originally being pinched first got in trouble instead of them. This happened all the time through out Courtney’s observations. Kindergarten girls as well as boys would tease each other through physical acts such as hitting, kicking and pinching. Through other observations of the older grades the violence became worse with the boys and the girls leaned more towards verbal bullying.
Kelly saw bullying in a different way. Robert is a five-year-old boy in her afterschool program. She noticed he was becoming very sensitive to everything around him. Jokes that were once funny to him now seem hurtful. Kelly stated that she would tiptoe around him because of his heightened sensitivity. She then found out by speaking to Robert that his 9 year-old older brother has been picking on him every day at home. Roberts’s experiences in the household have carried over into school. The action his brother has taken on him has made Robert extremely paranoid and sensitive. Kelly has also witnessed multiple bullying situations in her afterschool program. She also agrees with Courtney that the girls tend to be more verbal and boys more physical.
Bullying has become a nationally known threat to children in the U.S. It is an issue that a teacher must be careful when dealing with because each child will be affected by it differently. When observing bullying it is hard as a teacher not to get involved when you observe it happening; there will be times when you choose not to get involved and let your students work it out themselves and there are times where a teacher must step in. By observing children in situations of bullying we have agreed that it is important to approach each situation differently. In cases of bullying listening to the child isn’t enough because there may be an instance where they choose not to say anything and as a teacher you have to be their voice and help them find theirs.
Understanding Behavioral “Issues” in Context:
Through our observations we have seen an array of different behavioral issues through the K-3rd classroom setting. Kelly has witnessed behavioral problems of Chris a 2nd grade boy who is an only child and was raised by a single mom, who conceived Chris at a very young age. Chris is also looked over by his 20-year-old Uncle when his mother has to work. His teacher has explained to Kelly that Chris struggles with listening skills and following directions. Chris is the class clown but takes it way to far. For example he burps when the teacher is speaking, throwing objects at students and refusing to follow classroom directions. Kelly has also witnessed a few behavioral problems in her after school program. She has been having problems with gossip between a few 3rd grade girls. They are very materialistic and gossip about the latest toy their parents have purchased for them and there have been times where jealousy has been a major issue. When we observe children in our classroom we do have to become aware of what their home life may be like and what the child is dealing with on their own time. Not every child comes from a home that is perfect.
Courtney has observed a Kindergarten boy named Jose. Jose is a bilingual student who’s English is very poor. He is one of Ms. Hatcher’s lower performing students and she has had issues all year long with Jose. He does not listen to directions, hits the other children and disrupts the class constantly. He does not want to complete any of his work he would rather play games in the corner by himself or explore on the computer. His mother even comes to school in the beginning of the day and stays with Jose until lunchtime to make sure he is not disrupting the class. After watching Jose continually disrupt the class Courtney had to ask one simple question, what is being done about this boy? Ms. Hatcher informed Courtney that Jose will be taken from the class and placed in a special education classroom setting where he can be watched more closely and begin his journey for a better education while his needs are being met. Courtney has also witnessed issues that a first year second grade teacher has been having controlling her entire class. She has poor classroom management skills and her class as a whole is having major issues following every day classroom rules and regulations.
We both are graduate students getting ready for a career in teaching. We are looking forward to a new classroom with new faces. Through our observations we now understand fully what it is going to be like managing a classroom, controlling and understanding certain confrontational situations and making sure each and every child is getting the help they need to succeed in life. It will be a challenge at first but every challenge come with reward. The reward for us will be our students trusting us enough to come to us with their problems weather it is educational or personal. We can do this by taking a second to watch, learn and listen.
Kelly has been working with an 8-year old boy in her afterschool program named Kevin. Kevin was always a smart and enthusiastic boy. She has recently been noticing Kevin’s lack of motivation towards his schoolwork and how he is shying away from the other kids and he has become very A-social. A boy who was once very organized has seemed to stray away from anything school related. Kevin’s mother has recently had a new baby and Kevin has yet to mention the new addition to the family. Kelly knows about his new baby sister but was told by his mother that Kevin was not too happy about it.
Courtney was observing in a Kindergarten class where a students mother has just had a baby girl. Juliana is a big sister now and very excited to share it with the class. She brings in pictures and shares during class that her new sister looks just like her and cant wait until she becomes a little older so she can play games with her. Her enthusiasm about her new sister has made Juliana much more sociable in class and she is excelling in her schoolwork.
We both understand through these observations that a child’s life may go through some dramatic changes. It can either affect them in a positive or negative way. We just need to make sure that we are aware of these changes.
Danny is Courtney’s first cousin on her mother’s side. He is in the first grade in the Harborfields school district in Greenlawn N.Y. Recently he was just informed that he will be moving the nearby town of Centerport N.Y in just a few months. He will be entering into a new neighborhood and a new school as well. Courtney’s family had a barbeque at the Greenlawn house a few weeks ago. They were in preparation of the packing process. Danny was very devastated when his playground was knocked down to accommodate a quick and easy move for the family. He was told he would no longer need the playground because his new backyard was Centerport Harbor and he will have a big yard to play in. Danny was devastated about his playground being knocked down. Danny explained to Courtney that all he wants is his playground and he does not want to move. He wants to stay at his old house with his old friends and in his old school.
Mary is a 7-year-old girl who has just moved to Manhasset and has recently joined Kelly’s after school program. Her parents had told Kelly that since the move she has become very emotional and formed really strong attachments. Recently, it being spring break, Mary cried hysterical when leaving her elementary school teacher. Kelly tried to explain to her that spring break is only a weeklong and she will see her teacher soon but it did not help. Mary as also been getting herself very worked up every Wednesday when Kelly leaves early for class. She cried so much she works herself up into a panic even though it is a repeated situation every week.
When a child faces a huge change in their life it can be very overwhelming for them. When dealing with Mary in Kelly’s afterschool program we have come to realize that working with the child and parents together can help tremendously. Working with parents shouldn’t be avoided; working together helps the child adjust easily knowing that everyone is there for them. With Mary, Kelly has been in constant contact with her teacher and parents to make the adjustment easier for her and Kelly as well as Mary’s teacher have found ways to help her along with listening to Mary and asking her how she feels.
We began our paper talking about Courtney’s neighbor who recently had a grandparent pass on. We have both observed two more situations regarding death and the way children handle it. Samantha is a kindergarten student. She has not been in school for several weeks. Her teacher informed Courtney that Samantha’s father has passed away of cancer. When Samantha returned to class her demeanor seemed very uncomfortable. It took her a few days to get back into her every day routine. Once she did that Samantha seemed comfortable and back to her old self in no time. She needed time to adjust from sorrow to school and being with he friends.
Kelly’s cousin Thomas is an 8-year-old boy who has recently lost his Uncle. His Uncle and his father were very close, and to Thomas it was like losing a second father. For months after his death Thomas would carry a picture of his uncle but never wanted to talk about it. For Thomas it was easier to avoid the topic then to confront it and would walk away if his name was ever brought up.
Death is a situation that many children will face at some point and every child is affected by it differently. Children have their own coping methods, by observing them you will learn what works for them and what they feel comfortable doing for the time being. A child may not want to talk during a situation such as this and observing their actions is key into helping them adjust from their terrible situation to moving on.
Through all our findings we came across many similarities in how children deal with certain situations. All of these similarities came to us through observations, personal experiences and interviews with students and teachers. We decided to put our heads together and come up with tips for teachers on how to listen to children.
Tips For Teachers:
We both have found many things through our observations and research about how to help teachers listen to children better. In the pamphlet Take a Moment to Listen (Chetna) we found the following very helpful.
“What Does Listening to a Child Involve?
- Giving your full attention
- Face him/her
- Sit with her/him and have eye contact
- Understanding your child’s tone and body language
- Allow your child to lead the way instead of giving your verdict.
- Being open to and respecting child’s views.
Why is Listening Important to Children?
- Listening to children enables them to put forward their thoughts and feelings
- Develop positive self concept
- Enhance children’s competence and self confidence
- Help children to accept other’s point of view
- Help children to develop trust in adults.
- Develop and sharpen their skills in negotiation and communication.
- Establish healthy relationship with adults and peers,” (Chetna, Take a Moment to Listen).
Through Courtney’s interview with Ms. Hatcher, a bilingual Kindergarten teacher, Courtney received some very helpful information on how Ms. Hatcher is practicing listening to her students better. She explains how she is taking the time to get to know each individual student as a whole. She takes the time everyday to speak individually with every one of her students and give them time to ask questions to her. She does not judge she just listens. She understands that they all have their own personalities with their own individual questions, whether it’s about life in general or just classroom objectives. Ms. Hatcher admits that it has been an ongoing struggle throughout the school year but she is continuing to make sure that her students understand that they all have an opinion in their education. They to can make decisions and they are being heard.
In a video entitled ‘Engaging multiple intelligences in the classroom’ a woman by the name of Pam Schiller goes on to explain the idea of Gardner’s multiple intelligences and how locating a child’s multiple intelligence is key to a successful classroom. Children are all so different and by having a classroom that can incorporate a child of every intelligence can almost ensure that every child will be reached. Schiller gives the examples that using art can be for a child who is more spatial, music for the child that is musical or intrapersonal and show and tell and reading for those students who succeed more in language. Schiller mentions that it is our job to make sure every child has the opportunity to learn through their multiple intelligence profile; which she goes on to explain that out of the eight multiple intelligences the child’s highest four are their multiple intelligence profile. Schiller explains that we need to become aware of children and learn what they need. When listening to children and asking them what they want and what they expect out of learning you will notice that not every child will respond to the question the same.
To answer the question how can we practice different ways of listening to children? We have observed, interviewed and reflected on past experiences. We both agree that in the past we looked at certain situations with a slight judgment, almost interpreting our own thoughts on what children think. We took things too literally and didn’t give the child a chance to have a voice. Through our findings we have observed children through the things they say, they questions they ask and the actions they do. We separated our findings into categories such as, moving, death, bullying, new baby and behavioral issues. These are just a few themes that we have found similarities in. We understand that there are many more situations that teachers will come across in their classrooms. Upon starting this research project the both of us have agreed that when we are in the presence of working with children we have changed the way we go about interacting with them. Instead of asking all the questions we let them ask us, we let the child choose what to talk about. Before this we have gone to many classrooms to complete our observations for our class fieldwork assignment only to watch the teacher in the classroom and how they dealt with classroom management. Now when observing various classes we began to focus more on the students and try to see what works for them and how they interact in the classroom. As teachers we all need to understand that these situations do exist and need to be acknowledged.
Through our tips for teachers we discussed that each child is an individual with different needs and opinions. By doing this research project we have learned a great deal through all our experiences and observations. We as teachers need to let our students know that they are being heard and that they too can have an opinion in their education.
Our vignettes of past experiences outside the classroom really opened our eyes to how we really were not listening to children but using our own opinions on outside behaviors and didn’t look at the deeper picture. For Courtney when she originally experienced her cousin’s situation of with moving away from home, she assumed that he was extremely depressed about the fact his playground was gone and now his old home was gone through his actions. He now has to adjust to a new school and new experiences. For Courtney’s neighbor his behavior during his grandmothers wake and his anti-social behavior screamed out as attention at first but looking back at the situation and speaking to him afterwards this was his way of dealing with the death of his grandmother and the fact that he did not want to deal with it at all but he truly does miss her very dearly.
1. American Life: “How to Talk to Kids http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/341/how-to-talk-to-kids.
2. Center for Health Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness (CHETNA): Take A Moment to Listen.
3. Cook-Santher, Alison (2009). I Am Not Afraid to Listen: Prospective Teachers Learning From Students
4. Cook-Santher, Alison (2009). Listening To Students About Learning Differences.
5. Cushman, K. (2009). Sat bronx: a collaborative inquiry into the insider knowledge of urban youth. Theory Into Practice, 48(3), 184-190.
6. Heshusius, L. (1995). Listening to children: “what could we possibly have in common?” from concerns with self to participatory consciousness. Theory Into Practice, 34(2), 117-123.
7. GryphonHouseInc. (Producer). Engaging multiple intelligences in the classroom. [Web]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lv_zUe69H94