Talking matters - Often, biting your tongue leads to less pain.



I noted an interesting play experience recently with three children that clearly demonstrated adults frequently talk too much. This experience prompted me to consider the connections between my work with horses and children and the effective use of language.


I had given a clicker to three children 8, 12 and 14 years old. Prior to this, the children had spent a brief session with me training my horses. This was a liberating experience for the children as these horses can be trained over a safety barrier completely at liberty, and these young trainers were confidently able to cue the horses to perform some fun behaviours without an adult. I took the opportunity to take their training experience a step further when visiting them later the next day. I explained to them how to use the clicker – that it marks the desired behaviour and gives the animal or person feedback on their behaviour. We then “trained” my husband using the clicker to walk into the room turn around and pick something up off the table. They were all very excited and eager to have a go at training each other. They organised who would be the trainer and who would be the trainee. What was so interesting for me as a teacher and trainer was how quickly they picked up the technique – how silently focused they became as they “clicked” to guide the person in the right direction. It was magic to watch. Not a word was spoken. Each child had a go as a trainer, and became silent in concentration as they looked for what the other person was doing right and slowly shaped the desired behaviour.


Then the bubble suddenly burst. The magic was gone as their parents came in on the scene and unable to keep quiet, started telling the children “no, don’t do that,” “stop moving so quickly!: I smiled to myself and began pondering: As a teacher, lecturer and trainer, I have discovered my experience using a bridge signal or clicker to train horses has helped me to talk less, and do more. When training horses, the bridge signal identifies the required behaviour and bridges the gap between the behaviour and the trainer’s ability to reward the animal. The reduction in talking helps to clarify the cues and feedback, and makes the bridge signal easier to hear. Of course dealing with children we can clearly mark the behaviour we want by using language or body language, but we still need to consider what and how much we say. When interacting with young children, by focusing on talking less, listening to the children and taking more action to set up and arrange the environment to meet their needs, we may actually discover more about them. When we are dealing with unwanted behaviour, rather than talking about it or drawing attention to it, I consider changing the environment or changing my own behaviour in order to achieve a result. When I do talk I speak clearly, giving clear cues and my aim is to eliminate as much as possible any emotional content in my requests – such as sighing, or using an angry agitated voice. This may sound clinical and cold; however it allows us to communicate more effectively and to be a better listener and observer, able to respond appropriately.


There is a place for an emotional response – after the behaviour or task has been completed. We can then respond with as much emotion as appropriate, reflecting back to the child their sense of achievement or frustration, whichever it may be, helping them to deal with this emotion by modelling the appropriate action or behaviour. Much of what we say is often not only unnecessary it can also limit our success as teachers or parents because we miss opportunities for helping our children develop their own skills. We often fail to recognise just how much we talk and how often this talk can also become destructive for children’s learning experiences. Not only do we talk too much; our focus is on what we don’t want! Is this hard wired into humans? Why do we feel the need to say “don’t do that?” I have struggled with this issue as a coach and as a teacher. I aim to focus people’s attention on the desired response, getting them to identify it and comment on it especially when dealing with young children. This strategy helps the child to identify the desired behaviour and the reinforcement or praise encourages them to repeat the behaviour.


From a scientific perspective, this is based on applied behaviour analysis: the technique is positive reinforcement that increases the likelihood of a behaviour. As parents and teachers we can use this information to our advantage by praising our children more. We then need to look at what we can do to help children learn from their experiences.


Here are some key points to help you focus on what you want and to talk less, whether you’re a parent or a teacher:

  • Clearly identify what it is you want the children to do, especially if you are “looking after” a group of children. Have an activity or game in mind.

  • Clearly describe the behaviour to the children when giving feedback: “I like the way you are listening, or talking, or washing your hands.”

  • Give the children time to figure things out before you move in to “sort them out:” Give them time to explore options.

  • Remain supportive, giving non-verbal encouraging feedback – smiling or nodding.

  • Redirect children rather than correcting them. Give them a new focus. Ask them to do something for you to direct them away from an unwanted behaviour.

  • Ignore as much as possible unwanted behaviour – and catch them doing what you want.


“ When we are dealing with unwanted behaviour, rather than talking about it or drawing attention to it, I consider changing the environment or changing my own behaviour in order to achieve a result. "


This last point is difficult for us as we are prone to waiting until the unwanted behaviour surfaces and then we try to deal with it. My approach is to act before that happens. Prevention is better than cure. Set them up to be successful by manipulating the environment – if the room is crowded and noisy, asking children to sit still and be quiet is not setting them up to succeed.


Using labels such as “good” or “naughty” doesn’t help children know what to do. I encourage people to look at the tiniest step towards the final behaviour: If the child is trying to do the right thing, reward this effort. Don’t wait until they have grown exhausted or frustrated trying to complete the behaviour.

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