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5 Tips for Better Chats With Young Children

As UMD Preschool and Research Center Turns 75, Director Says to Start by Ditching Your Phone

By Karen Shih ’09

A woman smiles at children in a classroom

Jennifer Smallwood-Holmes, director of the Center for Young Children that celebrated its 75th anniversary over the weekend, offers strategies for more effectively engaging little kids in conversation.

Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle

Tired of battling a toddler about putting on their shoes or struggling to extract the tiniest detail about your preschooler’s day? Communicating with little kids, who are just learning vocabulary and seeking autonomy, is tough—but an early childhood education expert at the University of Maryland suggests it doesn’t have to be.

“The way we communicate with our children plays a huge role in their identity development: ‘Who am I? What am I worth?’” said Jennifer Smallwood-Holmes, director of UMD’s Center for Young Children (CYC), pre-K and kindergarten program in the College of Education. “Even when they’re just pointing as a baby and we respond and acknowledge what they’re doing, these are valuable ways that children learn they are important in the world.”

Encouraging communication is also critical for children’s brain development, one of the many topics that researchers study at the CYC, which also serves as a lab for human development and early childhood investigators, as well as a demonstration site for UMD students studying to become teachers.

[Lessons for the Littlest Terps]

As the CYC celebrates its 75th anniversary this fall, including a gathering of current and former students, parents and teachers on Saturday, Smallwood-Holmes draws lessons gleaned over the decades to talk to tots more effectively.

  • Put down your phone. It might seem harmless to scroll Instagram while your toddler stacks blocks, but it keeps you from fully engaging. “We tend to ‘uh huh’ children a lot when they approach us, and then eventually they learn we’re not open to them,” Smallwood-Holmes said.
  • Don’t evaluate. Adults often default to “Good job!” when a kid calls to us from the monkey bars or shows us a drawing. But even positive judgment ends a conversation, she said. Instead, point out the muscles they’re using or the shapes they’re making, “which opens kids up more about what they’re thinking or feeling.”
  • Ask open-ended questions. Encourage back-and-forth conversation when your child comes up to you and says, “Mommy, look at this!” Try “Tell me more about that,” or “What did you do then?” or “How did you feel about that?”
  • Give clear instructions. “We tend to say, “Would you like to clean now?” thinking we’re having this nice, social conversation,” said Smallwood-Holmes. “But what a child needs is, ‘Please clean up your puzzle now.’”
  • Control your emotions. If you’re anxious or angry because you’re running late again, you’ll rile up your little tyke—and that halts any productive conversation. “They can’t learn in that emotional storm,” she said. Instead, try to add buffers to your schedule to avoid pressure points and set your child up for success.
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College of Education

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