How to Communicate With Children

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In this podcast, we are joined by Dr. Rebecca Rolland, a Harvard faculty member and author of The Art of Talking With Children, published by HarperCollins, to discuss how we communicate with children.

To set the scene, Rebecca begins by talking about what inspired the book, The Art of Talking With Children, and discusses in what ways she feels that digital media has impacted the way we communicate across and between generations, and also in particular its impact on the mental health of young people.

Rebecca touches upon the impact of the pandemic in terms of communication skills, before commenting on the importance of conversation, in particular daily conversation with kids, in supporting their deeper learning, to reduce conflict, to build their empathy, confidence, and creativity.

Rebecca talks about how to know if what we say to children is helpful, details what a quality conversation with children and young people looks like, and shares tips on how to adapt our conversations to help build empathy and confidence depending on a person’s developmental age.

Rebecca then discusses whether we should adapt our conversations depending on the role we play for a child, for example as a parent or as a teacher, and comments on how we can help children and young people to have quality conversations with their classmates and their teachers.

Furthermore, Rebecca shares her tips for CAMH professionals when conversing with children and recommends rituals and routines that help to bring quality conversations to everyday life.

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Dr. Rebecca Rolland
Dr. Rebecca Rolland

Rebecca Givens Rolland is an oral and written language specialist in the Neurology Department of Children’s Hospital Boston and a lecturer at Harvard University. As a nationally certified speech-language pathologist, she has worked clinically with populations ranging from early childhood through high school and provided teacher professional development. As faculty and Module Director at Harvard Medical School, she lectures on topics of communication, mental focus, and creativity. She frequently consults with organizations working to design powerful learning experiences for kids and adults. She has an Ed.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, an M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology from the MGH Institute of Health Professions, an M.A. in English from Boston University, and a B.A. in English from Yale. Currently, she lives in Boston, Massachusetts with her husband and two children. (For more information about Dr. Rolland, visit Home – Rebecca Rolland)


[00:00:32.040] Jo Carlowe: Hello. Welcome to the In Conversation podcast series for the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, or ACAMH for short. I’m Jo Carlowe, a freelance journalist with a specialism in psychology. Today I’m interviewing speech pathologist Dr. Rebecca Rolland, a Harvard faculty member and author of The Art of Talking With Children published by HarperCollins. How we communicate with children will be the focus of today’s podcast.

If you’re a fan of our In Conversation series, please subscribe on your preferred streaming platform. Let us know how we did with a rating or review, and do share with friends and colleagues. Rebecca, thank you for joining me. Can you start with a brief introduction about who you are and what you do?

[00:01:12.685] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: Yes. Thank you. Thanks for having me. I wear a few hats. I’m a speech language pathologist, and I’ve worked with children all the way from toddlers through young adults. I also teach educational assessment at Harvard, so meaning looking at language, literacy, how children are reading and developing, and so on, as well as I teach at Harvard Medical School. I’m also the mother of two kids. So in all of this, I’ve really brought together my understanding of language and the role in mental health as well as my work as a mother.

[00:01:43.710] Jo Carlowe: Great. Thank you. And as I mentioned in the intro, you authored the book, The Art of Talking With Children. What inspired the book?

[00:01:51.923] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: Yeah, so I really found, as a researcher in speech language pathology, that we know so much about the power of back-and-forth conversation with children. So it builds so many skills in them and especially relating to their mental health and their social and emotional development. But as a parent, I realized that we were often on autopilot. Sort of I was doing it with my own children, and I realized many other families were. So we didn’t actually use what we know about conversation with kids. So this book was really an attempt to take all of what we know and make it in a form that’s actionable for therapists, for teachers, for parents, and so on.

[00:02:27.055] Jo Carlowe: And we’re going to look in more detail at communication with children, and I thought it would be useful to unpick some of the influences on conversation, perhaps starting with digital media. So in what ways do you feel digital media has impacted the way we communicate across and between generations and also in particular its impact on mental health of young people?

[00:02:51.007] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: Definitely, yeah. So I know this is such a big factor for so many families and so many classrooms and has kind of wide reaching implications that are very different depending on ages. I would say the big overarching issue is really the question of disconnection. So, whether or not it is– there’s a lot of research, for example, showing that when mothers are habitually on their phones or even fathers, that toddlers are not engaging as much with them or with the world.

So that’s just one example that there’s a disconnect between our relationships when we are on our phones rather than with one another. That goes up all the way through young adulthood when we see a lot of teenagers are what we call alone together. You know, their parents are here, they’re here, but nobody’s really engaging. And so I think that, to me, rather than the technology itself being bad or good, we especially want to look out for technology when it’s being used to disconnect or to isolate oneself rather than to connect.

[00:03:48.300] Jo Carlowe: What about the pandemic? Because of course, children haven’t been able to meet in person. I mean, what’s the impact of the pandemic in terms of communication skills and in the way that children and young people communicate?

[00:04:02.940] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: Yes, I think this is a great question, and it’s something that we’re really still unpacking. So the big answer I would say is that we actually don’t know the severity of the impacts that it’s had yet because it is still so new. We’re still kind of involved in it. But there are a lot of studies now starting to show that young children especially, so infants and toddlers, do show a lot of speech and language delays. There are some social and emotional delays all the way going up through the older ages and obviously a lot of stress and anxiety. And that’s really from the child’s side but also from the adult side. So whether it’s in the classroom, whether it’s at home, all of this back and forth interaction is impacted because the adults are feeling burnt out and stressed and worried, and the children are also feeling that way. So there’s kind of a perfect storm of factors here that makes back and forth communication really important but also challenging.

[00:04:52.560] Jo Carlowe: And you’ve described conversation, in particular daily conversation with kids, as the most powerful tool we have to support their deeper learning, to reduce conflict, to build their empathy, confidence, and creativity. What is it about conversation, in your view, that surpasses other ways of acquiring these skills?

[00:05:13.613] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: So I really think that it is the fact of being able to be responsive in the moment and to meet children exactly where they are. We often think about kind of meeting children where they are developmentally whether it’s, oh, this is a three-year-old or a six-year-old. But we don’t always think about really meeting them where they are kind of in the exact moment to say, oh, I don’t think I quite understood what you meant by that, or I’m not quite understanding your thought process. And so by actually being able to be very responsive, whether it’s about how children are learning, how they’re processing experiences, or even how they’re dealing with negative experiences they’ve had, being able to help them with that process and actually support and scaffold them is so much more powerful than simply just assuming we know what they think.

[00:05:58.710] Jo Carlowe: And this idea of daily conversations with kids, are we talking about parents, friends, teachers, peers, mental health professionals? Is this everybody?

[00:06:07.882] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: Yes, this is really everybody. So the idea is that whoever you are, if you interact with a child, you really are providing a foundation for them to use these skills with others. So it’s almost not as important whether you’re the parent, whether you’re the mental health professional, or even if you’re supporting a child to interact with a peer. Just the fact of being there for a child and being able to guide them through this process, it really models for them all these skills that they can bring out into the world.

[00:06:35.190] Jo Carlowe: That sort of assumes that we know what we’re doing or we’re good at it. So not all adults are adept at knowing what to say to children, or perhaps they think they are but actually they’re communicating in ways that might be harmful. So how can we know if what we say to children is helpful?

[00:06:53.202] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: In the book I talk about rich talk, which is this idea of how we jump start these more meaningful conversations in ways that are more helpful and constructive. And it really has three components– ABCs. A stands for adaptive, meaning that we really are going with the flow of the child, whether or not it’s in the moment depending on their mood or their circumstances or even longer term based on temperament and so on. So we know that actually helping to match a child’s temperament and actually providing a good fit– thinking about the fit is so important in supporting their development.

And B is the back and forth. So the idea here is that we often do talk at children or even to children but not actually with them. So if you’re not sure whether you’re good at this, I would really encourage everyone to just pay attention to how much talking and how much silence there is from the child’s side and from the adult side or whoever is interacting and try to find a balance. I think some of us are over-talkers and some people are even overly quiet, you know? So it’s not necessarily one or the other but just to really think about that balance.

And C being child-driven. Some people have said, oh, does this mean permissive parenting or letting the child do anything? And it’s definitely not that. So it’s really this idea of starting with what’s on a child’s mind or what’s of concern to the child. So that might be something positive if the child has an experience to share or even something that seems worrisome or troubling or that seems to be on a child’s mind. So that’s shown to be much more impactful and even motivating in terms of learning and so on than if we start with something abstract that the child doesn’t care about.

[00:08:28.315] Jo Carlowe: Can you give some examples? You’ve given the building blocks, but what does quality conversation with children and young people look like?

[00:08:35.445] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: I’ll give an example actually of a time when my daughter, who was about age three at the time, was in preschool and the teachers told us that she did not like to make mistakes. So she actually blamed her mistakes on other people. And she was having trouble making friends because the friends were upset that they were being blamed for things they didn’t do. And so we had a conversation about this. And I started out with a more adult-driven talk so saying, you know, we know we all make mistakes and it’s OK and we need to talk about them. And that really didn’t seem to have very much effect on her. This was sort of just a lecture and she kind of brushed it off. And then I decided to try something else, which is that one day I came home, I had forgotten an umbrella, and I was just completely drenched. And she looked at me and she said, oh, you made a mistake. You should have brought your umbrella. And that gave me this idea that, you know, maybe I could talk about at the dinner table and just model this idea of making mistakes but also what can we do about them. How can we see them in kind of an optimistic light and actually strategize for the next time? So I said, OK, so I’m going to talk about the mistake I made today. And I kind of talked about it and then said why I thought it happened– you know, I was just in a rush– and then what I could do next. So thinking about a constructive next step.

My husband also talked about a small mistake that he made. And you know, I said, well, do you have one? And she did not. She definitely– said she did not have any mistakes. And so in recognizing that that’s OK, so I wasn’t going to push on that. But we just did this. We continued modelling and kind of a relaxed and open way for a few days. And then I stopped doing it. I just forgot one day. And she asked me, well, what about your mistake? What mistake did you make today? So she actually had gotten into the routine and was really enjoying the sense of hearing about these daily conversations. So we did this again. And then she actually started piping up and saying, well, let me tell you about my mistake.

And this went on for a couple of weeks. Wasn’t forever. But really over time, we did find that she was much more able to talk and kind of laugh about smaller things that had happened in her day without having been pushed or without having been probed or lectured at. So that’s just one small example. But I think ways in which we can bring these kinds of conversations into our lives without a ton of time or without pushing a child to say something they don’t want to say.

[00:10:50.052] Jo Carlowe: It’s really helpful. I mean, it’s a non-shaming way to [INAUDIBLE]. Yeah. I’m wondering about conversations with different age groups. And perhaps you can break it down for us. So how should we adapt our conversations to help build empathy and confidence and so on depending on a person’s developmental age?

[00:11:09.393] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: Definitely, yeah. So, I think that obviously these principles apply throughout. But as children who are younger especially, I start to think much more about being more concrete and shorter term in terms of our timeline. So, things that are more in the here and now, starting there. I also want to emphasize that we don’t have to stop there. We can often get to bigger ideas and bigger topics. But especially with the younger age groups, I would start with something we can actually see that’s in front of us. For example, if we are talking about empathy or kindness, I wouldn’t want to talk in the abstract about that first with a child who is more young. So, we might say, well, if we’re watching a TV show and somebody was bullying someone else, we can use that as an example to talk about, well, how did that character feel? What did you notice about their body? What did you notice on their face that was showing you that? So, we start to talk about really concrete and visible ways of showing emotions. You don’t need to do as much of that typically as children age. But for some kids, they’ll still benefit from that. So, it does always depend on the child. But I do tend to think more concretely based on the younger the child.

[00:12:15.310] Jo Carlowe: And as they get older, you can be more abstract.

[00:12:18.400] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: Yes, more abstract and also more open-ended. So rather than is it this or that, you can really go to more sort of open-ended questions without one right answer. So why do you think this character was like that, or what do you think they’ll do next? So, a lot of predictions, looking ahead into the future. If that was your situation, how would you respond? I also like to ask kids how they would end stories differently as an example. So, think about creative ways of, well, how would you have liked that story to end, or how would you have liked that situation to end to help children think more flexibly and to realize that things can turn out in many different ways.

[00:12:53.350] Jo Carlowe: Is quality conversation the same for, say, parents as it is for teachers? Or should we adapt our conversations depending on the role we play for a child?

[00:13:02.913] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: Yes, I mean, I do think there are a lot of similarities. So, I think the major principles are the same. But at the same time, obviously as a teacher, it’s a little bit more challenging to get to know each child as individually as parents do. So, in that way, I think a lot just more about grouping. So how do you actually support kids to do this with one another in smaller groups or even to support classroom cultures where it feels as though, for example, mistake making is OK.

One great example I heard is just if a child is making a mistake say in a math problem, I heard a teacher who was saying, well, yes, that’s not the correct answer to this math problem, but let’s think about math problems to which that would be the correct answer, which I thought was really cool and kind of a different way of thinking in a more academic way. But we’re still getting that idea across.

Children are actually doing more math in that moment. They’re actually thinking creatively, and they’re normalizing the sense that we know this isn’t correct but it’s not as if it’s the end of the world. We can think about other ways of considering it. I think it’s almost just tweaking it in terms of whether you’re going to be more academic or more in this sort of parenting role. But I do think there’s a lot of overarching principles that are the same.

[00:14:15.610] Jo Carlowe: Let’s stay with the classroom for a moment because you’ve described rich talk as the foundation for enhancing the classroom climate. So how can we help children and young people to have quality conversations with their classmates and their teachers?

[00:14:29.182] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: So, I think a lot has to do with really providing those scaffolds or starters for children. And I think about it almost as if providing a framework from which children can operate. So just as one example, talking about differences. So, I have a chapter in the book about being open to differences of all kinds, whether that’s learning differences, racial differences, ethnic differences, so on. And one thing I really emphasized is this idea of starting with an introduction for students just to get the idea across that difference is something we should celebrate.

So, we are glad that we have difference in this classroom and it’s something that we actually want to point out not in a shaming way but actually to learn from. So, setting that stage and that foundation. Then when children are having these difference conversations, we can really support them to say, yes, that is a difference, and let’s talk about where did it come from, what can we learn from it, rather than saying, oh no, let’s hide that or, oh, we’re actually all the same in all the different ways because we know that we’re not. So, that’s just one example. But I think really helping to set the frame and then setting some scaffolds for students is so important.

[00:15:34.660] Jo Carlowe: What about CAMH professionals? What tips do you have for them when conversing with children?

[00:15:39.333] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: What I found really important is just to recognize that children might not always be ready to take on bigger topics. And it’s actually OK to start and have conversations that might feel inconsequential in the moment. Actually, we can just take the temperature of a child in some ways by having conversations about what they did this weekend or what they’re excited about with vacation. As a speech pathologist, I actually do ask questions that seem very small talk to get a sense of how much is the child having reciprocal conversation, what’s the child’s speech like. And these things are not things I’m going to start with. You know, tell me a big and important or scary thing. It’s really something– we can almost ease into bigger conversations and feel that we don’t need to be pressured to start, quote unquote, big.

[00:16:26.340] Jo Carlowe: And of course, children and particularly teenagers don’t always want to open up to adults or engage in conversations. Are there rituals or routines that you recommend to bring quality conversation into everyday life?

[00:16:41.280] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: That’s certainly true. And I think one of our typical reactions or go-to reactions can be to panic whether we’re a parent or a therapist or so on and to say, well, we need to get something out of that child. We need to further ask probing questions. We need to further find the right thing to say. And oftentimes, that just results in more stress and kind of the child shutting down more even though that was the opposite of our intention. So, I actually find things like rituals especially that are active and even quiet that the child likes, especially if the child can take a leading role, can be really helpful openings in terms of supporting conversation to happen later.

So, one example I’ve heard is that mother was actually playing basketball with her son and saying, oh, the son didn’t want to talk at all. But actually, in showing her how to do something in basketball, he just was more relaxed. It was just a few minutes of back and forth with talking about that. And then on the way home, he was really much more open in terms of talking about something else that happened. So oftentimes, really having that moment of togetherness that might not have conversation in it can be a really helpful opening to actually bring conversation back.

[00:17:48.060] Jo Carlowe: There was something there about the child having been in a kind of comfort zone.

[00:17:51.878] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: Exactly. Yes. And I think and also showing competence in something. So, I think oftentimes children, if they feel that they don’t get the chance to show their mastery of something or to show skills, can feel further shut down. So, I think having that moment of mastery or of even explaining something, whether or not it’s explaining a video game or explaining how to work something in the car, whatever is can be really helpful.

[00:18:12.960] Jo Carlowe: Rebecca, is there anything else that you would like to highlight or any additional tips that you can share with our listeners?

[00:18:19.193] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: Definitely, yeah. So, I think that this can start– it might feel as though, oh, this feels abstract or like a large undertaking, but really this can start I would say even in just the smallest moment. So even just taking 5 minutes or 10 minutes with a child, whether or not it’s in a therapy session or in a home, and just really sitting with the child and almost having some silence or some quiet ritual. So even things like drawing for a few minutes together, sitting and looking at what’s happening in the window, that kind of thing can really– and just sitting and listening to what a child has to say and really paying attention to that back and forth and to how much silence and gaps you’re leaving can be a really helpful jumpstart.

So, I would say if it feels like this is overwhelming or too much to really just start in the smallest moments. And you’ll actually find that children often ask for those rituals afterwards. So, I think it can be something that jumpstarts and kind of takes on a life of its own.

[00:19:13.560] Jo Carlowe: And does that apply across the ages?

[00:19:15.843] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: Definitely. Yes, I think so. So, I think, especially if it’s something that’s quiet– so we often think about– I would just give an example of television. We often think about it as calming children, but so often it’s overstimulating to children and they don’t want to talk afterwards, especially for younger children. So I would especially say that for the younger children to do something that is screen free, something even if it’s manipulatives, playing with blocks or something like that can really open up a world for them of communication.

[00:19:43.230] Jo Carlowe: What else is in the pipeline for you that you’d like to mention?

[00:19:46.470] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: I’m working on a few different projects. One of them is actually taking these principles and applying them for kids. I’m working on a book about how to be great conversationalist that’s for children. So, I think the– it’s for sort of middle grade children. So, I’m hopeful that that could be something of interest. I also have been writing collaboratively books with my 10-year-old daughter. So, kind of middle grade fiction. So, we’re kind of in that process, but we’re really enjoying. It’s been over a year or so now that we kind of write back and forth these stories, so I’m really excited to share those.

[00:20:15.913] Jo Carlowe: That sounds really exciting. Finally, Rebecca, what is your takeaway message for those listening to our conversation?

[00:20:22.230] Dr. Rebecca Rolland: Now is probably the most critical time that I can remember in terms of having these kind of conversation since with children. Whether or not it’s the stress of the pandemic or the challenges about recent news, all of the big issues that are going on, I think children are so often struggling and wanting belonging and connection and the ability to process experiences. So I think if there was a really important time to have these kind of conversations with children, I definitely think it’s now. And so I really encourage everyone to try this out.

[00:20:52.780] Jo Carlowe: Thank you so much. For more details on Dr. Rebecca Rolland, please visit the ACAMH website–— and Twitter @acamh. ACAMH is spelled A-C-A-M-H. And don’t forget to follow us on your preferred streaming platform. Let us know if you enjoyed the podcast with a rating or review. And do share with friends and colleagues.

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