By Ellen Booth Church

Greeting Time: Getting to Know One Another

Arrival is one of the best times for one-on-one conversations with children. Such talks help to engender a sense of belonging and to ease the transition as children start the school day. Even brief conversations can reaffirm their sense of belonging and help children settle in.

Of course, this often-harried time doesn't always go smoothly. If you feel it's time to move on but a child still has more to say, make an "appointment" to meet together later. If children burst in the door with news they can't wait to share and you're already involved with others who are talking with you - use the situation to model active listening and taking turns.

Group Time: Learning to Share

The manner in which you communicate at group time models how to listen, take turns, and share ideas. Even though discussions may be more formal than at other times of the day, try to keep them reciprocal and involving, inviting children's participation and comments.

Here's a strategy to help you evaluate your role during group time: First, audio- or videotape a group time session. Then, when you have some quiet time, play the tape back and ask yourself the following questions:

1. What percentage of the time am I doing the talking?

2. Are there times when children are doing most of the talking?

3. Am I spending most of the time telling children information or asking them for their ideas?

4. Do I ask open-ended questions to encourage children to express their ideas? Or do my questions mostly require one- or two-word predetermined answers?

5. Do I use reflective listening, repeating children's thoughts back to the group? (This kind of listening shows respect for and interest in children's ideas and helps other children get involved and build on one another's thoughts.)

A group time environment in which children are active, thinking participants fosters language development as well as many other important skills. Just be prepared for some very interesting, divergent answers and comments. And because there may be more than one "right" answer, or no right answers at all, try to accept all responses equally. When you ensure that group time is a time of listening, questioning, sharing ideas, and solving problems, you demonstrate to children how a community communicates! [See Group Time on page 61.]

Activity Time: Solving Problems

Children participate in many kinds of problem-solving during center time. Cognitive problem-solving takes place as children freely experiment with materials. Social and emotional problem-solving occurs as children interact with one another and materials!

Part of your role in fostering problem-solving skills is knowing when to talk and when to watch and listen. Follow children's lead during play and observe what they are doing before jumping in. Through observation, you can learn to see, understand, and respect their thinking processes. Try sitting down in or near the area before saying anything. When the children see you, they'll frequently engage you in their process, tell you about what they're doing, and even give you a job!

In the role of the observer you're better able to give support because you know more about what children are doing and can speak genuinely and specifically about it. Instead of general comments such as "I like your building" or "That's a pretty picture," you can offer more meaningful support: "Look at all the different ways you're experimenting with making that block stay on the top. You're working very hard to figure it out."

This type of observation also invites children to communicate their thoughts and feelings about what they're doing. Instead of tuning out what can sound to them like hollow praise, children may respond to your specific observations with a floodgate of comments!

You also serve an important role as a facilitator. Interjecting provocative questions invites children to think in new ways. Open-ended, divergent questions with many possible answers encourage children to brainstorm without fear of being wrong. "What might happen if...?" "What do you notice...?" "How many ways can you...?" "What could we try...?" Questions like these let children take risks as they develop language skills and use words to communicate their thoughts.

Snacktime: Developing Social Skills

The relaxed atmosphere of snack and meals offers children opportunities to listen to and talk with one another about playtime, food, families - whatever they're thinking about. In addition, a great deal of learning does take place.


Besides the essential self-help skills inherent in snack-time, children learn about the give-and-take of social conversation. When you join them at the table, model social conversation by sharing something about yourself, your favorite foods, or your family.

Snack is also a time to decompress from activities, a time to help children regroup by informally discussing what the rest of the morning will bring or reviewing what children have already accomplished.

Storytime: Learning to Listen

Talking and listening are the essence of story-time. The enthusiasm and drama you put into your reading are key. Practicing the story beforehand can help you find nuances, times to slow down or speed up, different voices to use. These dramatic elements will involve children and keep them listening. You might find a repeated phrase children can say in just the right spot or sound effects and movements they can contribute. And when you hear children exclaim "Let's read it again," remember that repetition helps children learn the language of the story - through many readings they'll eventually use the book to "retell" the story themselves.

Story-time is also a good time to ask questions - all kinds of questions! Besides those that check knowledge and comprehension ("Where did the bear live? What happened to him?"), remember to ask higher-level questions to encourage abstract thinking ("If the bear lived in your neighborhood, what do you think would happen? How would this story be different if..?").

Outdoor Play: Resolving Conflicts

Perhaps it is a comfort level reached with so much space, the chance to use loud outdoor voices, or an opportunity to demonstrate what they do best (move fast!); whatever the reason, this change in venue is good for many children. You can assist by helping them communicate their needs to one another. Conflict-resolution skills are often tested because of the group's high energy level. Dramatic play and conversations heighten as children engage in fantasies that can't be easily enacted indoors.

Whether children choose to be gregarious or quiet, your role in fostering language outdoors is still key. And remember, sharing a shady tree together can lead to very personal conversations that may not have a chance to happen indoors.

The ways we communicate with children - all day long - directly affect how they communicate with us and one another. Listening and speaking with respect and compassion are essential to creating a healthy environment and fostering language growth.

Your Role in Conflict Resolution. 

  • Social conflicts about sharing toys, needing space, and being friends occur daily particularly during center time and outdoor play. 
  • Rather than breaking up the "fight" and telling children what to do, involve them in discussing the problem. 
  • Encourage children to think of solutions until everyone is satisfied. 
  • Keep in mind that sometimes in stressful situations children may not totally understand what they're feeling or have the words they need. Inviting everyone to tell how he or she feels can get the conversation moving, but children may still need time for quiet reflection before they can even begin to speak!

Speak Up - Don't Talk Down

When talking with children, be sure to avoid falling into the trap of asking the obvious. For example, four-year-old Elizabeth walked in the door, and in an effort to involve her in conversation, her teacher asked, Elizabeth, what color is your dress?" Surprised and a bit indignant, Elizabeth answered, "Ms. Moore, don't you know?"

Never forget. We insult children when we ask questions we know the answers to. This kind of questioning feels like testing rather than inviting original thinking and conversation. Children know when they are being talked down to, and like adults, they don't appreciate it!

Ellen Booth Church is an early childhood consultant for the New York State Department of Education and for programs across the country.