Have you witnessed one of those cringe-worthy interactions in which someone is trying to get an idea across to someone else who does not speak the language? “Can you please tell me where this bus goes?” the lost tourist asks the local at the bus stop. When meet with a shrug and a bewildered look, the tourist repeats the question, this time slower. And then again, louder and even slower. While we, as witnesses, may understand the tourist’s frustration – we also can see that the repeated attempts to communicate are not going to be effective. It is not the well-meaning local’s fault that he cannot understand the tourist. Instead, the onus is on the tourist to find other ways to make herself understood.

“How many times do I need to tell you…?” “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times …” These are phrases that often escape the lips of adults, who like the exasperated tourist, are just trying to make themselves understood. But, like the tourist, just using the same words over and over are not likely to result in a change in a child’s behavior. Once born, we spend the rest of our lives trying to make sense of this crazy world. Ideas that make a lot of sense to adults (like the fact that hitting is not an acceptable behavior) is as foreign to a child as someone speaking an unfamiliar language. Expecting a child to automatically comprehend and integrate this norm into their behavior is not a reasonable expectation. Instead, it is up to teachers to find a way to communicate so that a child understands; both what they did wrong and expectations for appropriate behavior.

Proactively, we need to make sure that we are clear with our expectations so that children know what they need to do and if they are being successful in meeting them. “Sit still” may mean something very different to a teacher than it does for a child. So, as obvious as it may seem, a teacher can make it more likely that a child will meet expectations by clearly explaining and modeling the desired behavior. At school, lunch means sitting at a table and eating the food that is on the plate in front of you. At home, a meal might be eaten in a car seat on the way to a ball game, on a couch with my family surrounding me as we watch a favorite show, or on someone’s lap as we share food from a community dish. By defining expectations, a teacher can also help children exhibit desired behaviors at nap, meals, and during transitions.

These particular times of day can be confusing for young children, especially if classroom expectations are different from those as home. Teachers can lessen these behaviors by proactively making sure that children and teachers are all speaking the same language.

The same strategy can be used when correcting children’s behaviors. “Nice hands” may be a very clear instruction from a teacher’s perspective; but equally confusing from a child’s point of view. Children are much more likely to comply with directions that are simple and tell them exactly what to do. As an alternative to “nice hands”, “hands down” provides a clear directive as to what a teacher wants a child to do. Think about other common phrases teachers might use in the classroom; “no thank you”, “crisscross applesauce”, or “we are nice to our friends”. Consider how these might be rephrased to provide concise directions that are easy for children to understand.

In the scenario presented at the start of this post, it is not the local’s responsibility to learn the language the tourist wants to use. When they are both on the same page, the tourist and local are much more likely to have a positive interaction. In the same way, when a teacher strives to find ways to communicate that children understand; the result is often more positive behaviors in the classroom.

What do you think? Engage with me and others in the ECE community on my social media outlets. You can also find more information about my book and available training sessions, on any of the following:

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