This month, our guest contributor is Vanessa Moschak. Vanessa’s career has been centered on supporting students with special education needs. Vanessa was a speech-language pathologist for almost a decade before transitioning to the role of Assistant Principal at the Broome-Tioga BOCES PALS program. The PALS program, or Preparation for Adult Living Success program, educates students with significant, individualized education needs, ages 5 to 21, and focuses on developing life and employability skills. Vanessa is also a mom to two young boys, wife, sister and daughter who enjoys spending her spare time with family, cooking and reading.
Throughout my experience in education, I have always passionately promoted for others to be heard. As a speech therapist, my job entailed directly promoting communication skills for students, both as listeners and speakers. Now, as a school administrator, I have the chance to use these skills each day and promote the growth of voice with my students. A child’s voice is their ability to express their attitude, thoughts, and opinions in their own words. When working with parents, they often share their concerns about how to help support their child better express their voice in conversation. The practical strategies explained below provide a way to promote giving your child a voice:
If you are an adult with a busy schedule, listening often becomes an activity that is done while multitasking. Distracted listening can result in missing key nonverbal signals. Take a moment to focus on your child when they are attempting to communicate: establish eye contact, give them the gift of uninterrupted time, notice their body posture and mannerisms, and see what emotions you can pick up on. The key is to take the time to show your child he or she is your priority at that moment. This extra pause provides the chance to understand the message that is unspoken and offers the extra benefit of modeling what you want your child to do while listening to others.
At this point in the communication exchange, both the verbal and nonverbal messages have been sent. Now it is time to display your awesome observation skills! This is the chance for you as the listener to clarify any mixed messages and check that both of you are on the same page. Ask questions of your child to gain a better understanding of the details and reduce confusion. Use non-confrontational phrasing, such as “I heard you say” or “I may be confused,” which allows the conversation to continue until you have a sense of the true message being conveyed. Then, summarize the message in your own words. Initially, this part of the conversation may seem tedious, but it is crucial to moving forward in a positive way.
Most verbal exchanges fall into two defined categories, either to share information or to seek information. You will find the opportunity to develop a child’s voice in both scenarios. When sharing information, the listener can help to nurture the child’s voice through questioning. This increases the shared details and helps to identify and convey emotions.
When the child’s communication message seeks information, the child’s voice can still be developed with a few extra steps. Typically, when a child asks a question or makes a request of an adult, the adult responds with a singular defined answer. For example, when Tommy asks if he can play video games all day on Saturday a predictable parent response is “no.” In this scenario and many others, the conversation can be extended and help the child develop voice by offering several options or by negotiating. In this scenario, a parent could provide options such as a defined length of play time, a limited time of day during which the child may play video games, or a menu of activities which includes video play time. If a parent and child were to compromise in this scenario, the parent and child could negotiate the length of time, or agree on a number of chores completed in order to increase playing time. It is imperative when compromising that both the adult and child communicate what they would ideally like and then work to create a solution somewhere in the middle, negotiating options until a solution is reached.
It is important to note that when starting to work with your child to develop a voice, offering several options is easier than having them negotiate. Offering options provides the child voice by allowing them to choose from a finite selection while compromising requires the child to be able to think and express preferences, which is more complicated. Over time and with practice, a child can grow to be able to negotiate.
End on a positive
By this time you have made it through the bulk of the conversation and have successfully provided your child a chance to practice using his or her voice—way to go! The conversation is now in the home stretch. The ending of your conversation should briefly summarize in a sentence or two what was discussed as well as the solution that was reached. Find a way to end your conversation with a meaningful compliment. Commend your child for the problem-solving he or she participated in, or thank your child for using a calm tone of voice or even simply for selecting an option. There is always something positive to reinforce in every communication exchange! This will help to build a positive relationship that will make communication easier over time.
Check Back In
After some time passes, find a way to refer back to your conversation. It may be after an hour, a day or a week, but find a way to revisit the conversation. Take the time to talk about how using voice felt for both you and your child. Was it successful? How did it feel to have options or compromise? Was there something that could have been said or done differently after taking some time to think? Revisiting the conversation helps to reinforce the process for both you and your child, and often helps to highlight its success, increasing its use again in the future.
These strategies by themselves seem simple enough, however, when combined, they provide a powerful opportunity for your child’s voice to be heard. Having your child’s message be heard is a powerful, validating process which ultimately helps him or her develop and craft voice. I can fondly recall the satisfied looks on my students’ faces when they finished a conversation in which they felt like they had been understood and heard. Those moments stay with me and challenge me to make every conversation a meaningful one. The few extra minutes this type of conversation requires are a small price to pay for the lifelong communication skills children will develop as a result.