What makes lightning happen? Why are people’s eyes different colours? How come adults go to war but tell children not to fight? If you’ve ever spent time talking with children, you’d know they are naturally curious. It’s likely you've heard similar questions as well. In fact, some studies show that young children can ask almost 300 questions a day! While that sounds a tad exhausting, it’s also a gift because some questions are, in fact, conversation starters. Conversations open the door to meaningful learning.
A child’s best learning and cognitive development years happen in early childhood through adolescence. From ages 6 to 18 children grow exponentially, moving from concrete to complex thinking. They develop the ability to exercise logic, make wise decisions, and form a worldview.
As children’s cognitive capacities are being formed at this time, teachers and parents have a wonderful opportunity to help them discover their value in the world.
Conversations that are conducted in an open manner, allow a person to freely ask questions without fear. It gives space for everyone in the conversation to listen attentively and learn with each other. Through conversations with children, we can learn more about them and help them recognise their ability to make a difference and also help them develop the confidence to do so. Here are some key reasons why little conversations can lead to big change.
Becoming someone who wants to make a difference often requires the ability to look beyond oneself. We can’t expect this of children without first meeting their need to look within - their need for a strong sense of self-identity. It’s important that children are given the space to discover who they are. As children grow, they will encounter many different people and as a result, be exposed to different ideas, values, and cultures that can affect their perception of themselves. This could happen during extended family gatherings, at pre-school, in the neighbourhood, or while watching television. A 2019 study by Sesame Workshop and NORC at the University of Chicago suggests that having open conversations with children allows them to explore the notions of social structures such as race, gender, culture, and religion in a positive light. Many of these characteristics contribute to our identities and a sense of self. Having conversations with a trusted adult creates a safe space for a child to process what they’re exposed to. It's also a time for us to remind them that they are loved and valued no matter what they look like, live like, and believe. That brings us to the next point.
Self-esteem is how a person values themselves. That sense of value often comes from knowing that you matter, your thoughts matter, what you bring to the table matters. While teaching and instruction have their place, sometimes the most meaningful learning can happen when children are invited to speak their mind, question without fear, and initiate bold new ideas. Conversations give children the agency to do all that. The feeling of being truly heard can do wonders for a child’s self-esteem. It also provides a safe space for children to explore ideas when it comes to making a positive difference for their community. This contributes to developing healthy self-esteem in who they are, and self-confidence in what they can offer. They understand that they matter and that they can make a difference.
Children will learn to value other people when they first experience being valued.
“Children don’t do what we say, they do what we do,” quipped Dr Goh Chee Leong in Session A of The HEART Course. When we have an open conversation with a child, we’re modelling what it looks like to truly listen with empathy - to give someone else your undivided attention and allow yourself to feel what they feel. They learn that listening is just as important, if not more, than talking. This social skill is very important for a child to have if we desire to see them grow into changemakers in their own way. Because, to really make a difference for others is often to first listen and try to understand where the other person is coming from. Listening gives valuable insight into what the true need of the other might be. Later on in adulthood, the ability to listen with empathy will help a person make sound decisions on how to help best instead of just pushing their own well-meaning agenda.
Open conversations also help children with the idea that other people may feel or experience things differently from them. As they share their thoughts on a certain issue, you will share yours too. There may be similarities and there may be differences. Both are good as it helps them learn to be comfortable with it.
This equips them with the ability to collaborate and develop good working relationships with others in their pursuit of making a difference for their community.
While all these efforts may feel small, they add up to something greater over time. Giving children a sense of self-identity and self esteem, also gives them a sense of belonging as they discover their place and purpose in the world. As they listen and empathise with different people, they develop the ability to understand different issues and put themselves in the shoes of others. It could be a simple conversation with a classmate who struggles to attend school regularly, which helps them connect the idea that social inequality or family issues can be real even in their own community.
These conversations can end up helping them understand their world better and hopefully inspire them to become changemakers through curiosity, confidence, and a developing sense of purpose.
It also helps to remember that the development of a child’s self-identity, self-esteem, and social skills take time. Even as adults, it may not be second nature to strike up a conversation with a child. However, the opportunities for good, open conversations are always there. We can start small by making it a habit to listen to our students and to our children. Ride with their curiosity. Over time and through many wonderful conversations, your student or child will learn to build trust with you and with other trusted adults who can guide and eventually mentor them as they grow into confident changemakers in their own way.