A friend (a former teacher) recently told me about a genius tactic for communicating with kids.
Apparently, all teachers learn this “secret weapon” in their training. As a parent, though, I’d never heard of it.
Which kind of surprised me. Because I have four kids. And two step-kids. Communication is my job.
Sure enough, when I Googled it, page after page of references to teaching came up. But in the context of parenting? Almost nothing. And yet this little gem makes perfect sense for kids in any setting.
Thinking. Takes. Time.
The genius idea: something called “wait time.”
When we ask our kids something, they need an uninterrupted period of silence in order to process information, reflect on what we’ve asked, and consider their response. For you and me, this all happens automatically at rapid-fire pace. But kids—who are taking in a lot of new information every day and still learning how to express themselves—sometimes need a little extra reaction time to form their thoughts.
Not much time.
Not go-in-the-corner-and-ponder-for-an-hour time.
Which, if you’re like most of us, is probably about two seconds longer than you’re giving now.
The magic of “wait time”
“Wait time” is actually an old idea in education. Back in the 1970s, a science educator named Mary Budd Rowe found that most teachers waited about one second (literally, 1 to 1.5 seconds) for a student to give an answer in class before jumping in to ask someone else, rephrase the question, or just answer it themselves.
Not long enough, Rowe said!
On the other hand, when teachers waited longer, about three seconds, some really good things happened:
- The students gave more correct answers.
- They were less likely to say “I don’t know” or nothing at all.
- They gave more thoughtful answers.
- They asked more questions themselves.
- Their confidence increased.
- Their attention and cooperation improved because the kids felt listened to.
There’s nothing magical about 3 seconds over 2.9 or 5, she reported. The point is that a slight prolonging of silence over what’s typical for adults gives kids the time they need to think and express themselves. (“Think time,” in fact, is the newer term in education circles.)
Teachers are also taught to not just wait for the answer but also to insert a little pause of time AFTER the answer. When they avoid rushing in and moving on right away, kids have a chance to add any further thoughts that come up.
We all know there’s plenty going on in a kid’s brain. It simply doesn’t always pop out as quickly as we’d like, especially in some situations.
It’s easy to mistake this for being inattentive or obstinate or slow—when, in reality, they’re processing.
Waiting helps us too.
“It makes sense to slow down a little and give students a chance to think,” Rowe noted in the Journal of Teacher Education. “Unfortunately it is very difficult for many people to get average wait times up to three seconds or longer.”
It’s really hard for parents, she may well have said.
It’s really hard for ME.
And yet, we’ve all been there, when kids feel rushed…and the rushing backfires. Shut down by our haste, they lose interest. They go even slower. They close up like deflated balloons.
Here’s another plus to giving kids those extra few seconds: It benefits not just them but the whole communication process.
The research on wait time with teachers shows that when they add two seconds of wait time on answers, they themselves start asking more thoughtful questions. Their own thinking skills improve!
Many educators suggest their patience improves a little too.
One, two, three…wait
Talk about giving our kids the gift of time. And in a way that hardly takes any time at all for a lifetime of confidence and conversation:
Which book should we read?
What was your favorite animal at the zoo?
What do you want to be when you grow up?
How do you like your new teacher?
Why did you do that?
Where are you thinking you might apply to college?
I’m going to try that last one at dinner tonight. Wish me luck.