- Describe the importance of interactions in supporting cognitive development.
- Identify ways your interactions support learning.
Although they might not always show it, school-age children and youth care a great deal about interacting with adults. Interactions provide a space for children to learn about your program, expectations, and adulthood. During interactions, school-age children test out ideas, try new perspectives, and decide how they fit in. This is all part of cognitive development.
Not only are interactions important for cognitive development, they are also enjoyable for you and the children. In fact, this might be part of the reason why you have chosen to work in child and youth programs. Being thoughtful and intentional about your interactions with school-age children makes your program a place that promotes learning, and it makes your job more fulfilling.
You can turn your interactions into teachable moments throughout the day, every day. Teachable moments simply build on natural events. As you get to know each child or youth, you'll learn how to recognize and respond to these events. You do this by carefully observing children, providing an interesting learning environment, and using careful communication. Make the most of teachable moments by:
- Being a role model. Children are watching you to learn about being an adult. When you show curiosity, ask interesting questions, or join in a physical activity, they notice.
- Noticing children's interests and needs. Experienced staff members sometimes talk about noticing "the rumbles": times when a child or youth is on the edge of getting frustrated or angry. Perhaps she exhales loudly, moves the materials a little too forcefully, or begins to look a little upset. These are moments when a sensitive adult can step in and help find a solution to the problem. Consider a few examples:
Jose is frustrated that he can’t get the model plane wings constructed like they look in the directions.
Three children have noticed a bird nest in the tree outside the fence. They are very concerned about the well-being of the baby birds.
Dominic and Ashley are playing pool. Dominic is having a hard time getting any balls into the pockets.
- Joining children in play. You can help children expand their thinking and try new things in play. If children are pretending to be servers at a restaurant, you can join play and order your favorite food. You can model language adults use at restaurants ("What's the special today?" "Can I have the check please?").
- Using open-ended questions. Open-ended questions have multiple answers, and encourage children to describe things in their own words and guide the conversation: "Will, why do you think the elephant is sad in the story?" "Tanisha, how do you want this to look when you're done?"
- Modeling the skills children need for an activity: "Hmm…I wonder where this puzzle piece will fit. I'm going to look at the shape and then try putting it in a few places. Nope, it doesn't go there. I'll try another spot."
Interactions with Adults
How you talk to children makes a difference in their learning. One of the most powerful things you can do is use words that encourage. Take a few moments to compare the types of comments:
Descriptive Feedback & Encouragement
Which type of comment do you think gives more information? The statements on the right side of the chart have more meaning. They let the child know you noticed their learning, but they also encourage the child to keep going. It's OK to occasionally say, "Good job", but look for opportunities to describe what the school-age child is doing and learning.
Just like it's important to notice and use encouraging words when school-age children show you they are learning, it's also important to use encouraging words when school-agers struggle or are frustrated. School-age children learn by taking risks and trying challenging things. Sometimes they make mistakes. Caring adults make the most of these moments and are careful to avoid embarrassing the child. Approach children with a warm tone and avoid criticism. Also be aware of the social setting: sometimes a school-age child might prefer to ignore a mistake in front of friends. You can always talk later. When it feels right to approach the child, you can say things like, "It looks like that didn't go the way you planned. How can I help?" or "What's your plan for next time?"
Think ahead about the interactions you'll have with children. Plan the different ways you might interact and how school-age children might respond. Think about:
- Giving children different ways to respond to you. Depending on the type of activity or question, you might consider responding chorally as a group, discussing an idea individually, holding up a sign with a response written on it, entering a response on a survey website, or giving a signal such as "thumbs up" or "thumbs down".
- Using questions that the children need to think about in order to answer.
- Using verbs that engage thinking such as "notice," "predict," or "describe".
- Avoiding saying that a question is "hard" or "easy".
- Giving children three seconds or more to think about their answer.
Interactions with Peers
You aren't the only source of learning for school-age children. They also learn from interacting with peers. Arranging opportunities for school-age children to learn with their peers is another type of interaction that you can plan for your program. There are several ways to do this that have been shown to be effective on improving children's learning and interactions.
- Peer tutoring can be a helpful way to think about structuring homework time or study groups in your after-school program. It is an activity where children are assigned partners and work on structured activities under the guidance and supervision of an adult. First, the adult models the activity for the group and the roles each child will play. Perhaps, children are working on math homework. In this instance, one child is the tutor and one child is the tutee. The tutor explains the homework and helps the tutee with a problem. Then the children switch roles. Each child has 10-minutes as a tutor and tutee. The adult circulates to encourage and assist as needed.
- Reciprocal teaching is an activity where a child acts as the teacher in a small group or with a partner (Reading Rockets, 2014). This could be a nice model for letting school-age children teach others about their hobbies or interests. It could also be a way to structure homework help between older and younger children. Adults model the steps of the activity then help the children learn to lead the activity. In leading the activity, adults model engaging in different behaviors including: making predictions, reading a text, asking questions, clarifying information, and summarizing information. Once school-age children learn how to lead the activity, they take turns "teaching" to their peers. This activity allows children to work out problems together and check answers with each other.
The Role of Culture in Interactions
Elements of culture affect every part of our life. Think about your childhood and the way you were raised. Did your family value independence or family loyalty? What were your parents' attitudes and beliefs about how children should interact with adults? What were your family's views about the role of parents in their children's education? Did your family believe that parents should take an active role or did they think that a child's education is best left in the hands of teachers and other educators? How you answer these questions are all influenced by your culture and upbringing; and how you answer these questions likely influences how you interact with children.
Children enter our programs with unique backgrounds and experiences. Knowing children's backgrounds and preferences is the heart of developmentally appropriate practice. You can use this information to send the message, "You belong here." By acknowledging and respecting the cultures and traditions of the children, parents, and staff in your own program setting, you promote a sense of belonging and community. Many children attending your program will come from different cultural backgrounds. Some school-age children may have different levels of English proficiency. For example, some children may enter your program with a first language other than English. Be aware of how your interactions support the learning of all children. Watch for evidence of bias like:
- Do you comment equally on girls' and boys' appearances and accomplishments?
- Do you praise African American boys for their athleticism more than their academic achievements?
- Do you comment on children's size (e.g., "He's going to be a football player")?
- Do you encourage girls and boys to play sports or lift weights? Do you encourage girls to "be careful" while saying "boys will be boys"?
- Do you encourage peaceful solutions for all children (e.g., avoid giving directions like not hitting kids with glasses)?
- Do you have conversations with all children-including those who may have speech and language difficulties or who are learning English?
There are some important guidelines you should know about interactions that promote learning:
- Stay close. Avoid speaking to a child from across the room. Move to where the child is, sit or stand at their eye level, and have a conversation.
- Use children's names in conversations and pronounce their names correctly. Make sure children know that you care about who they are.
- Ask open-ended questions to promote thinking skills. Open-ended questions do not have a specific answer. They give school-agers a chance to use their own ideas to form a response. Open-ended questions are thought to be especially helpful with learning because children learn their ideas are valued, they become more confident in explaining how they got their answer, and they are able to respond at their own level.
- Observe children's play and interactions. Get to know how each child prefers to relax, what types of activities they tend to choose, and with whom they typically choose to interact.
- Involve school-age children in decision-making, planning, and problem solving. Involve school-age children in developing and interpreting the program's rules. Involve them in choosing, planning, and setting up activities. Provide authentic leadership responsibilities to help children develop cognitive skills.
- Challenge stereotypes about differences that children express or that are expressed by the media (e.g., race, ethnicity, language, disability, sexuality, gender, language, etc.). Create a space where staff and school-age children feel comfortable talking about identities, differences, and similarities.
- Discuss the choices school-age children make and how those choices impact peers, the program, and the community. For example, you could discuss the different ways children arrive or are picked up from the program in terms of environmental impact (or even traffic flow). This could lead to scientific or civic conversations and problem-solving discussions.
Think about the unique ways interactions help school-age children learn. Take a look at the Reflecting on Interactions that Support Learning activity. Read the scenarios and answer the questions. Share your responses with a trainer, administrator, or coach.
We all learn from positive interactions and like to get encouragement about our work. Children and youth like to be noticed, recognized, and encouraged, too. Take a look at the Celebrating School-Age Children Handout. It contains sample phrases you can use to celebrate and encourage a school-age child.
Class Wide Peer Tutoring Program. (2003). Retrieved from http://www.promisingpractices.net/program.asp?programid=99
Delquadri, J. C., Greenwood, C., & Whorton, D. (1986). Classwide peer tutoring. Exceptional Children, 52, 535-542.
Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L. S., Mathes, P. G., & Simmons, D. C. (1997). Peer-assisted learning strategies: Making classrooms more responsive to diversity. American Educational Research Journal, 34(1), 174-206.
Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L. S., & Al Otaiba, S. (2001). K-PALS. Teaching Exceptional Children, 33(4), 76-80.
Meyer, K. (2014). Making meaning in mathematics problem-solving using the reciprocal teaching approach. Australian Journal of Language & Literacy, 37(2), 7-14.
Pennsylvania Early Learning Keys to Quality (2011, May). Ten Commandments of Interactions with School-Age Children. Retrieved from http://www.pakeys.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/10-Commandments.pdf
Reading Rockets. (2014). Reciprocal teaching. Retrieved on July 25, 2014 from http://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/reciprocal_teaching