How we choose to speak to someone determines how well that person will listen and respond to us. This applies equally when talking to children as it does to other adults. Our choice of vocabulary as well as our delivery and body language will therefore directly influence how what what we say is received. This is important all the time but perhaps more so at times of potential conflict and emotiveness.
When talking to children, we as adults, whether teacher or parent, often feel entitled to talk authoratively to them. This is natural given the status that we expect and deserve as adults and our generally greater understanding of responsibilities, priorities and needs than children. However, this approach relies on everyone being calm and socially cooperative and compliant. In reality, interaction between teacher and student and between parent and child is much more socially dynamic and negotiated. It is a more volatile context where certain words, phrases and body language can easily trigger undesirable consequences. It therefore does not matter whether the adult is right and in their right to talk authoratively if the child is unwilling or unable to accept this at that time.
If our goal is to gain compliance, avoid conflict, minimise anxiety and other emotional stresses when talking, then it is worth reflecting on how we speak. Are we communicating blame, failure and other attributes which make the child feel bad? These tend to be triggers for emotional dysregulation and when this happens logic and reasoning are compromised. Therefore it make sense to avoid making the child feel bad and use more neutral, understanding and supportive statements that are more likely to result in acceptance and compliance.
Changing the way we speak is not easy and generally requires us to be emotionally calm ourselves. At the same time, children can be very good at 'pushing our buttons' and making us react emotionally and being quickly lured into argument and conflict. No one gets it right all the time but with practice all of us can significantly reduce undesirable incidents.
Things to avoid
It is important that our own negative emotions do not influence the way we interact with children. We should try hard to avoid to avoid:
emphasing their failings
directly challenging their judgements and choices
threats and ultimatums
undermining their confidence and self-esteem
There may be times when we want a child to feel bad about their actions so that they learn to show remorse and apologise. However, this is better achieved through supportive and understanding dialogue that encourages the child to reflect on their behaviour cognitively and not be consumed by their emotions.
Things to try
We are more likely to achieve compliance, cooperation and calmer responses when we:
stay calm and understanding
share the responsibility and blame
recognise that children and adolescents need lots of gentle reminders
help them to save 'face' and status in front of others
encourage them to reflect on any incidents
support them to find their own solutions
give them thinking time
support their emotional well-being
Sometimes it can feel like 'walking on egg shells' in our attempts to avoid lighting the fuse on volatile children (and adults). However, this is a useful analogy to keep in mind when remembering to modify our approach for all children. This is definately not about giving in or being easy on them. Instead, it is about strictly enforcing boundaries and rules through the path of least resistance. It is an approach which is ultimately less emotionally exhausting and stressful and that has to be a good thing!