Committee for Children Blog

Preparing Students for Tough Conversations

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civil discourse, social emotional learning, SEL, second step

Communication—the human connection—is the key to personal and career success.

—Paul J Meyer

From childhood to adulthood, conversations have an impact on daily life. We communicate every day, many times a day, and the skills we use to talk with others determine whether the outcomes of these interactions are good or bad.

Throughout my years as a school psychologist at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels, I lost count of how many students were referred to the office for showing disrespect or defiance toward an adult, physically or verbally fighting with other students, name-calling, throwing objects, or damaging someone else’s property. It was disheartening to think about the amount of administrator, teacher, support staff, and parent time spent on those referrals and the number of classroom and instructional minutes the students lost. Invariably, most of those incidents started with words. They began as conversations and rapidly declined into intense emotional reactions that often led to significant negative consequences.

Fast forward to adulthood where we see these same conversations that lead to intense behaviors and emotions, which play out in different ways. The consequences are no longer office discipline referrals, but rather lost jobs and friendships, sleepless nights, and stress that affects physical health. For people to effectively apply the civil discourse skills necessary for healthy conversations, such as active listening and emotion management, those skills first need to be taught, modeled, and practiced. Even people with strong social skills may struggle to use those skills in conversations with others who show little understanding or who loudly declare their opposing views or communicate only for the purpose of being heard.

Rewind to the early years. Simply asking or telling children to engage in understanding conversations does not mean they will be courteous and respectful. Expecting children to naturally develop communication skills is not enough. School is where children learn how to be college and career ready, and we have the opportunity and responsibility as educators to prepare them to understand differences and to navigate them by strengthening their capacities to successfully regulate their attitudes, emotions, and behaviors. We foster environments that cultivate considerate communication and help students build language and strategies that will equip them to discuss issues without resorting to arguments or disputes.

It is never too early to teach children they can disagree respectfully. As educators, we can instill skills and capacities in early learners to support them with situations throughout life. For more on how we do this, follow my next post.

To effectively communicate we must realize we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”

—Anthony Robbins