Conversations with children that support responsive engagement

Children have imaginative ideas and individual ways of seeing the world. Conversations with children help us to see the world through their eyes. Conversations also help us to understand what children know already, and what they are exploring. As educators we try to gain insight into what children are learning so that we can provide interesting, playful activities to scaffold their learning. We aim to have meaningful conversations with children that encourage them to think more deeply, come up with new ideas and explain their thinking.

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Research is very clear about the importance of high quality interactions between educators and children. High quality interactions help children to feel comfortable in an early childhood setting. Extended conversations encourage children’s deep thinking and problem solving skills. From an educator’s perspective, conversations with children give us an insight into what children already know. This is important for effective program planning.

Early childhood theorists talk about ‘responsive engagement’ and ‘high quality interactions’. But what does this mean? How do we ‘do’ responsive engagement? To answer these questions, I watched many hours of video-recordings collected in five different early childhood rooms.

There are some characteristics of high quality conversations that stand out. They are warm and calm, and children and educators both take turns to contribute to the talk. Conversations about a topic are focussed and sustained. Some children speak confidently and volunteer lots of ideas, whilst others speak softly or communicate by gesture or with their eyes. Educators introduce new words into the conversation. The pace of the conversation enables everybody to have a turn to speak and to be heard.

There is a simple technique that helps to achieve responsive engagement. It may take some practice, but it costs nothing and it really works. The trick is to pause. Pause before you respond to a child’s remark and pause after you ask a question. When educators pause in a purposeful way, we tend to focus more clearly on the child’s comment and so our response is more thoughtful. When we pause after we speak, we create ‘space’ for children to think. Their answers give us a clearer picture of their thoughts. When we pause, we give children an opportunity to volunteer their own ideas and to lead the direction of the conversation. When children volunteer their own ideas, educators are able to assess their understanding and then to plan activities that are based on children’s interests and tailored to extend their learning.

When educators pause, we hear what children have to say. When we listen to what children say, we have a clearer understanding of what they know. When we understand what they know, then we can respond in a way that genuinely scaffolds their learning. Purposeful pauses help to build a platform of child-centred practice.

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Caroline Cohrssen

Caroline Cohrssen is employed at the University of Melbourne as a senior lecturer/researcher on the Master of Teaching (Early Childhood). She is interested in the home learning environment and young children’s demonstrations of mathematical thinking, not only in what they say but also in what they make, draw and do. Caroline’s work aims to equip pre-service early childhood educators to recognise mathematical thinking, plan playful activities and interact purposefully with children to support and extend children's emerging mathematical skills and understanding. 'Her current research focuses on four year old children's demonstrations of spatial thinking.

5 thoughts on “Conversations with children that support responsive engagement”

    Diane Jurcola says:

    Thank you for that article, sometimes I do forget to pause. My best converstaions with children happen when they are standing on the fort. The childs position becomes taller than me and our faces are closer. In this position I get to learn what a child is thinking and I get to ask lots of questions. I find this outside play and quiet time a valuable rescource to how they are settling in, what they have liked doing and what things to change. We both need to be in a comfortable position and our mouths and ears are near each other and of course a time to pause. Cheers

    Belinda says:

    Thank you. Excellent article.

    cola says:

    well articulated,that’s right.With over 35 years of working in Early years education,I still enjoy listening to children and taking turns when conversing.This was taught to us on the NNEB training since 1984 in the UK.

    Anne Kennedy says:

    Excellent information based on practice evidence about sustaining engagement and conversation. The importance of the ‘pause’ is especially important when having conversations or engaging with children with a disability.

    Clare McHugh says:

    Thank you Caroline for an interesting article that gives pause for thought. Lovely example from the fort in Diane’s comment too. Will work on the pause myself and see it as a very adaptable concept for those times when children and their parents or educators are engaged together on interactive media. Or simply when adults come across children using interactive technology. http://www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/our-work/digital

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