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Why the Imperative To Be Quiet and Focused All Day in School Is Hurting Our Kids

behavior in school, kids talking to themselves, how children learn

Think about this for a minute before you punish kids for talking.

My 7-year-old daughter, a second grader, was recently punished for talking while the teacher was talking. She was sent to the “learn how to behave center,” she says, because she and her friend were commenting to each other about just how many kids were being sent to the “learn how to behave center.” My daughter felt it was unfair that she had been sent there instead of being allowed to play, but I explained to her that it’s not fair to talk while the teacher is talking. I assured her I would ask her teachers about what happened, though, because I also wanted to be sure she wasn’t being unduly punished. When I approached one of her teachers about it, I was told that my daughter had been chatty all week, not just while the “punishments” were being doled out. That seemed reasonable, and since I was a chatty kid myself, I wanted to help my daughter understand why it’s important to listen and not speak while the teacher is speaking.

When I broached the subject with my daughter again, she told me talking out of turn isn’t the only reason kids are asked to “learn how to behave.” Talking during what is supposed to be a “quiet” time seems to be one of the main reasons kids get sent to this shame-filled little corner of the classroom. While I understand the need teachers feel to control the chaos that can come with 30 elementary-aged students squawking in one small classroom, I think some allowances have to be made for children to talk at a low volume during certain traditionally “silent” periods throughout the day, like while reading or writing, for example. Here’s why:

As this article on Bright Hub Education indicates, “Many studies suggest that the function of private speech is to assist the child in performing some developmental task.” Private speech is that quiet little voice kids use to talk to themselves, giving themselves a play-by-play of what they’re doing, and it helps them accomplish the task at hand. So for example, if the task at hand is to write a short paragraph about how you spent the weekend, a child will likely feel the urge to verbalize his thoughts while writing in order to accurately recall what he did over the weekend. Contrary to the belief teachers have traditionally maintained, being silent doesn’t actually help young children focus while writing. They literally need to talk it out, but as Bright Hub Education notes, “In most schools, such behavior is not encouraged.” That’s unfortunate, especially because the brightest students may be the ones that are hampered the most by a “be quiet” policy. “The brighter the child, the more time spent in talking to one’s self,” Bright Hub Education asserts. Furthermore, “there is evidence that talking to one’s self is related to the quality of performance, particularly in brighter children.”

But what about children who have trouble controlling themselves? My daughter is in a class that includes students with special needs, thus the emphasis on behavior modification. In fact, when I spoke to her teacher about the talking issue, her teacher told me, “Your daughter is a great student, and we look to her to be a role model. So encouraging her to address her behavior now will benefit everyone in the long run.” (Yeah, okay, as long as she doesn’t end up hating school in the short run.) But here’s what’s interesting about self-talk and kids with impulse control issues: allowing children who have poor self-control to give themselves “self-directing verbal commands” helps them learn how to behave. Probably a lot more effectively than a trip to the “learn how to behave center” will. According to psychologist Grace Craig, “Private speech is a way of expressing one’s feelings, gaining understanding of one’s environment, and developing language, as well as being a tool for developing self-control and inner thought.” It doesn’t seem like something to discourage, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m not trying to minimize the fact that a class of nearly 30 second graders needs to be subject to rules. Obviously there can’t be out-of-control noise all day, if only to maintain the sanity of the teachers. But I think that allowing children a little more leeway in terms of expressing themselves while working — as long as they are indeed working — is a better approach. The idea that children must remain focused all day in order to achieve has been debunked by research indicating that daydreaming (which is essentially what one does while ruminating about what to write) is not only “crucial to our mental health, to our relationships, and to our emotional and moral development,” it also “promotes the skill parents and teachers care so much about: the capacity to focus on the world outside our heads.”

As Anne Murphy Paul, author of Brilliant: The New Science of Smart, says, “educational practices that demand constant attentiveness, even from young children” interfere with “opportunities to exercise the vital capacity of introspection.” Paul wrote in a recent article for Forbes:

Over time, of course, giving yourself instructions becomes unnecessary — but while you’re learning, it does three important things. First, it enhances our attention, focusing us on the important elements of the task and screening out distractions. Second, it helps us regulate our effort and make decisions about what to do, how to do it, and when. And third, self-talk allows us to control our cognitive and emotional reactions, steadying us so we stay on task.

If that advice is good enough for billionaire business people, I think it should be good enough for our children. I understand that it may be difficult for teachers who are used to running their classroom in a particular way to open up to this line of thinking, but my daughter actually had a brilliant idea about how to accomplish a more open atmosphere that includes allowing students a bit of self-talk throughout the day. In another classroom that my daughter visits after school there’s a sign that lists all of the “voices” kids can use, ranging from whispering to yelling for help in an emergency. She thought a visual reference like that would help her and her classmates remain respectful while giving them the bit of wiggle room they need to keep themselves out of the “learn how to behave center.” They already know how to behave – the impulse to self-talk is a natural one. One that teachers can hopefully learn how to work with.

Photo credit: iStock

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