As educators, the words we use have incredible power. Our everyday language is an essential and sometimes overlooked component of the classroom environment, and as such it necessitates a certain degree of vigilance.
How we speak to children, and especially how we speak about children, can have a profound impact on the way students behave. What we say, and more specifically how we choose to express it, form the basis of how children understand our Image of the Child. It doesn’t matter how firmly we may believe in the competence, strength, empathy, and ability of children if our tone and manner of speech convey something entirely different to them. When we choose to constantly use language that belittles or humbles children (e.g. referring to young children as “cute”), it follows that students will over time think of themselves as little and lacking the power to exert influence over themselves and their surroundings. Conversely, when we speak to children with language that empowers or inspires them (e.g. calling children “brave” or “thoughtful”), they grow to have a profound sense of agency and competence in their day-to-day endeavors.
And while careful consideration of our language is essential to creating a learning environment in which every child feels comfortable and valued, moderation of language is not something to be taken lightly. One of the great struggles of teaching in the Reggio Way is balancing the constant push and pull between seemingly antithetical roles. In the Reggio-inspired classroom, teachers are facilitators, curators, and scientists, but they are also nurturers, co-researchers, and friends.
It is unquestionably the job of the Reggio-inspired teacher to help foster creativity and curiosity in students, and to record the process and outcomes of their learning. For a vigilant and highly attentive teacher, project-based learning can create countless opportunities to make the scientific thinking of children visible. But it is also the privilege and responsibility of teachers to engage in inquiry shoulder-to-shoulder with their students. In order to do that, a bond of trust between students and teachers must be established. In many ways, this bond is formed and strengthened in the most fundamentally human way possible: by simply talking to one another.
There is so much to be gained by asking questions of students. Guiding young minds to dive deeper into their investigations with careful prompting and the provision of thoughtfully curated gifts and provocations is the foundation of what it means to work with children in the Reggio Way. The language we use to describe what children create has a real impact on how they perceive the outcomes of their learning. But project-focused and inquiry-driven dialogue has its downsides, as well. When it becomes the primary mode of communication between students and teachers, it creates a division akin to the separation between a researcher and a subject. In scientific studies, the accuracy and authenticity of observation and documentation is a direct result of the non-biased neutrality that results from that separation. But that authenticity comes at a cost, namely the loss of human-to-human connection.
In other words, different roles necessitate different styles of communication. When we act in the role of facilitator and/or scientist, we need to be able to speak to children with words that are free of assumptions and inherent judgment. But that same style of communication can feel cold or disinterested when we don the hat of the co-researcher, nurturer, or friend. To me, there is something to be said for the ability to converse with children freely and casually about topics completely separate from their projects and preoccupations. These moments of casual conversation rarely drive projects forward, but they do serve an entirely different and equally relevant purpose.
By talking to children casually, we can undo artificially constructed hierarchies of ageism. There is a societal understanding that adults don’t always grasp what children are talking about, and that children are too young or too inexperienced to understand what adults are talking about. Small talk, jokes, occasional silliness, and even gentle chiding might seem like a waste of time that could be spent doing something far more obviously productive, but they are in and of themselves essential teaching tools. Casual conversation shows children a truth that is vitally important: they are people, just like us, and we care about what they have to say.
It is my opinion that children need to understand why they are being listened to. When we listen to them as they describe their projects and winding paths of inquiry, we show them that we believe they can comprehend complex concepts and engage in scientific thinking. We show them that our Image of the Child is one that values them as intelligent, curious, and articulate. But in the end, that is only half of the image. When we listen to children as they describe what they had for breakfast, what they think a cloud looks like, or which relative is coming from out of town to visit, we show them that their life is not so different from ours. We show them that our Image of the Child is one that values them as unique, multi-faceted, easy-going, and introspective. We show them that personal preferences, pastimes, family, and stories of things we did and places we’ve been aren’t irrelevant to learning, but in fact the opposite. They form the commonalities between teachers and students that eventually become the foundation for a productive and positive co-researcher relationship.
I think it is important to remember that while we speak to children, our words simultaneously convey to them who we think they are and how they think of us. A beautiful learning community happens when the Image of the Child and the Image of the Teacher meet in the middle. As Reggio-inspired educators, part of our mission is to question the archetypes of children as primarily silly, unfocused, hyperactive, and immature by creating contexts that foster their competence, curiosity, persistence, and empathy. By doing so, we can create a more complete picture of who a child is. But I think our words hold the key to challenging archetypes of teachers as well. Teachers are not exclusively stern, clinical, serious, and controlling. We need to remember from time to time to create contexts in which we bring out our own light-hearted, loving, silly, and free-spirited nature so our students can gain a complete picture of who we are. For us to do our jobs, children must understand that we have fundamental commonalities with them.
In short, we do need to be extremely careful with how we speak to children so as not to treat them as less than a complete human being. But in doing so, we need to make sure that we do not restrict our communication to the point of presenting a less than complete picture of who we are. It is vitally important that we remember that our words aren’t just for fostering investigation.
Ultimately, our words are for bringing us together.