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September 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 1

On Listening to Children

On Listening to Children - thumbnail
In my class of 4- and 5-year-olds, I see children trying out roles of potential bullies, victims, and bystanders as they become increasingly aware of social groups to which they might belong. Egocentricity, or seeing oneself as the center of everything, is a normal developmental stage for these young children, and trying on different roles is an everyday part of their play.
As they begin to form and join social groups, I want to help these children resist the urge to tease and bully others, to stop them from taking advantage of weaker children, and to teach them to stand up for themselves when someone tries to treat them unfairly or cruelly. I want to help them develop empathy, look at a situation from another person's point of view, and form a classroom in which each child is a valued member.
At the heart of this endeavor, we are learning to listen to one another. By carefully listening to the children work through social problems, I am learning that prejudging a situation means missing opportunities to help children resolve these issues for themselves.

The Situation

Five-year-old Zoë was both aggressive and fearful. She might push a child who tried to tell her what to do, but she was afraid of anyone who pretended to roar, a frequent sound made by these children, whose favorite playground game was “wild animals in the jungle.”
Throughout the year, I encourage group discussions about problematic social issues: arguments at recess, sharing of toys and materials, and problems that occur in transitions from one activity to the next. When I audiotape and transcribe these discussions, I am amazed at how much the children are learning from one another.
What follows is a transcription of one of these audiotaped discussions, intercut with my analysis of what was happening during the conversation.

The Discussion

“The boys are roaring at me!” Zoë's shrill voice startles me, as the children gather one spring day at the door on their way in from recess.
“We are not!” the boys exclaim.
I tend to identify with the child who is being teased rather than with the teaser, so when I hear Zoë's complaint, I am quick to assume that her report is probably accurate and to think that the boys are doing what they know Zoë hates most—pretending to roar near her. Over time, however, I have taught myself to hold back on this impulse to judge. I see my job as encouraging dialogue, not pronouncing guilt or innocence.
“Well, I think maybe they are roaring at me,” she says, “but maybe some of them didn't.”
Zoë often misunderstands motives, thinking that others are against her just because she doesn't like what they are doing. It is a sign of how much she has learned this year that she has the self-awareness to see that she may have misunderstood them.
“Well, Toby really meant to do it to Sean, I think,” explains Gwynn, who has become Zoë's best friend.
“And I want it to be at me,” Sean adds.
Gwynn's ability to help Zoë calm down when she is upset—and to know when to push Zoë to accommodate—often helps Zoë see another child's point of view.
“We need to find a way that Sean and Toby can play their game and Zoë doesn't feel roared at,” I tell them, as the children gather at the rug.
Our school has adopted the rule “You can't say you can't play,” from Vivian Paley's book by that name. Because the children have become more able to explain their ideas and feelings, I expect the group to find a solution that will accommodate those who like roaring and those who do not.
“They have to tell her before they roar,” Brooke says, “so that she knows that it's not going to be at her. Or if they don't like to tell her, then they won't look at her, and Zoë will know they're not roaring at her.”
Brooke understands what I am looking for: a solution that includes both Zoë's need to feel safe and the boys' need to play their game.
“Well,” Zoë says, “what I think people should do is, like, the boys should roar when I'm sick or at home.”
“We don't like that we can't roar all day,” Sean says. “Zoë's here every day, unless she's sick.”
Both Zoë and the boys are intractable at this point; neither side sees any possibility of compromising.
“They really want to be able to roar when you're here,” I explain to Zoë, “without making you worried about it.”
At least that's what I want.
“No, they can't do that. That's impossible. That's impossible!” she says, firmly and dramatically.
“What about Brooke's idea,” I persist, “that they face the person they're roaring at, so you know it's not at you?”
“That's still impossible!” Zoë says.
My demands that Zoë change are getting nowhere.
“Well,” Sean says. “It's not impossible for us to roar if Zoë's on the hill and we're down by the slide. Then she won't hear it.”
This is the first proposal for compromise from the boys: Sean can envision being able to limit the roaring to certain locations.
“I have another idea,” Zoë says. “That they ask my permission if they want to do it when I'm here at school—or they can do it after school or when I'm sick at home.”
This is Zoë's first sign of a little movement. She can envision the possibility that she could accept the boys' roaring game if she was not close to it. Her solution also implies that she might trust them to keep an agreement.
“I think if it looks like they're facing her,” Ariel suggests, “she could just say, ‘Please stop! Are you going to roar at me?’ and they'd say, ‘No, I'm going to look over there. I'm going to roar at that person that's in back or front or beside.’”
Ariel, a friend of Gwynn's, has quickly expanded on Zoë's concession. Like Gwynn, she understands both Zoë's need for protection and the boys' need to play their game.
“Zoë,” I ask. “Are you playing the same game as Sean and Russell and Toby?”
Why didn't I ask this question earlier? It's as though I had not really wanted to know what was going on in the game but just wanted to find out who was to blame.
“Yeah,” Zoë answers.
This piece of information is important, and I'd almost overlooked it. If she wants to play with them, she will look for a solution that allows her to join in rather than be separate.
Is it fair of me to insist that they change their game just for her? I know many teachers would say I was allowing her to manipulate them, to spoil their game. But I believe it is my responsibility to help the group show her how she can become a constructive member.
“We can roar,” Russell suggests, “but if we tell her we're gonna roar at her, she can tell us, ‘Can you please not roar at me?’ or ‘You can.’”
The boys like and trust Ariel, which helps Russell accept Ariel's idea. Allowing Zoë to control the roaring around her is a substantial compromise from the boys.
“Do you ever want to be roared at, Zoë?” I ask.
“No, never.”
Russell completes his line of reasoning: “Then we don't ask her, and she knows that we're not roaring at her.”
I wish Zoë could know that, but although she's made great progress, this solution would be hard for her to imagine.
“Why is she scared of roaring?” Toby asks.
Once Zoë's major adversary, Toby has been playing with Ariel and Zoë recently. He has also become interested in seeing situations from more than one point of view. He is a leader of these boys, and his wish to understand Zoë, not just negotiate a solution that will let him play his game, is a breakthrough for him.
“'Cause it makes me feel like there's a monster behind me, and I don't like monsters,” she explains.
Zoë is able to describe how she feels, without trying to blame him, after he shows interest in understanding her.
“Well,” Russell says, “why can't we do it in front of her? 'Cause then she's looking at us and she knows it's not a monster.”
Russell continues to come up with ideas that might answer Zoë's stated concerns.
“What's the roaring for?” I ask. “Who are you pretending to be?”
In the beginning of the discussion, I may have been acting as though I was impartial, but I still thought I knew who was to blame for the problem. But now, following Toby's lead, I want to know more about what is important to the children in the conflict. If I had asked what the boys were playing in the beginning of the discussion, perhaps they could have found a solution more quickly. Still, working quickly is not important when we need to understand one another. And I can learn from my mistakes, just as the children can.
“We're being dragons and stuff that roars,” Russell explains.
I briefly wonder whether they are “stuff that roars” because they know it frightens her. I also wonder why she wants to join, knowing the nature of the game. But I am giving up placing blame, so I ignore those passing thoughts.
“Is there a way they could roar, Zoë,” I persist, “that wouldn't scare you?”
If my first task in this discussion is to be interested in the problem from both points of view, then my second task is to insist that we come up with a solution that everyone can agree on: to insist and insist again.
“Well,” she says, “if they went, like, down, down, down to the bottom of the slide, then I probably wouldn't hear it.”
Zoë seems to be accepting Sean's proposal. To do that, she must believe that the boys are not just tricking her and that they want to understand her and meet her halfway.
“She could cover her ears,” Brooke suggests.
“No,” Zoë answers. “It wouldn't work. Because know why? I would know they're roaring at me, 'cause I just feel that.”
“No one roared at her!” Toby exclaims. “But when we do roar, someone can talk to her loud, so she can't hear it.”
“They could just—know what they could do?” Zoë says. “They could just go somewhere I couldn't see them and then just roar loudly so I heard. But I would know they were hiding and I wouldn't be scared 'cause I wouldn't feel chased.”
I am puzzled by the logistics of this plan, but I am glad that Zoë can imagine that she might hear a roar and still feel safe.
“That would be OK!” Russell agrees, apparently understanding, better than I do, how her plan would work.
“Are you a unicorn in the game?” I ask Zoë, knowing it's one of her favorite roles.
Once again, I want to know more about their game.
“She's a mom cat and I'm a kitten,” Ariel answers for her. Ariel supports Zoë, so she is not alone in this problem.
“I have a better, a different idea,” Zoë says excitedly. “It's that whenever they roar with their face toward my face, I'll pretend to scratch them! So, I'll be pretending to defend myself!”
“So you won't touch them?” I ask.
“Like this.” Zoë demonstrates a cat scratching, but with her hands out of range of Russell's face. “Yeeeaoow!” she yells.
This breakthrough—Zoë imagining that she could be part of a roaring game and protect herself—follows my wanting to understand her fantasy, as well as my continuing insistence that they must find a compromise.
“I'm a little bit worried about those fingernails,” I tell Zoë. “Do you have long fingernails?”
“No,” she says, inspecting them carefully.
“She never touched me,” Russell agrees.
Russell is willing to trust, too, that Zoë will not scratch him, just as she is willing to trust that the boys can roar at her without endangering her safety.
“OK,” I say. “Let's try it.”
I begin to imagine other potential problems, but I remind myself that we can always return to our discussion and come up with a new solution. For Zoë to imagine she could join these roaring dragons is an opportunity that I cannot refuse.

Lessons

What enabled the children in my class to listen to one another and to make the compromises that allowed Zoë to feel safe while playing the roaring game? This empathy and trust, I believe, were elicited by comments that showed that we wanted to understand what was most important to each child involved in the conflict. Each time we asked, “What do you really want?” the children involved in the dispute were able to be more open, more willing to see other points of view, and could then move closer to a compromise.
Asking open-ended questions is not always easy. I must constantly remind myself to let go of my own wish to control the discussion and instead be curious and try to understand. Only then can I help children express their feelings and opinions, listen to those of others, and make compromises that they can all agree are fair. When I hear Toby ask, “Why is she scared of roaring?” or Zoë say excitedly, “I have a better, a different idea,” then I believe that they are beginning to move beyond egocentrism toward more awareness of others, which can serve as a basis for an ethical classroom.
End Notes

1 Paley, V. (1992). You can't say you can't play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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