As an infant classroom teacher, you know that talking to babies is important. For instance, you tell the infants in your care what they are looking at (“You see the new block basket on the shelf!”). You label objects (“You have the red ball!”). And you describe events that take place in the classroom (“The tray just fell off the table! That scared you.”). These are all examples of talking with babies. Why, then, can it be so challenging to do this consistently in the classroom?
Teacher talk feels natural and comfortable. As we care for infants, we habitually chatter. For example, when we get ready to change a baby’s diaper, we say, “Oh my goodness, you are pretty wet! Let’s grab a fresh diaper, and change you!” Or we may say to an infant in a bouncy seat, “Wow, look at how many toys are out. I think every toy we have in the classroom is on the floor! I better pick these up before someone trips and falls!” We talk like this quite a bit in infant classrooms.
Then there’s communication support (talk directed at individual infants). We often talk “to” babies. We say things like, “Kayden, are you enjoying your pears?” Or sometimes, when a baby says “Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba,” we may say back to the baby, “Ba ba ba? Do you want your bottle?” Notice how I’ve slipped “sometimes” into this paragraph? Talking directly to an infant also feels natural. But we might feel more self-conscious about imitating a baby’s vocalizations back to them.
Finally, there’s communication extension (teachers and infant having back and forth exchanges). During communication extension, the teacher gives the infants words to say, grabs on to any attempts at sounds an infant makes, and then engages in a back and forth exchange with the baby.
It feels less natural to extend conversations with an infant. Infants aren’t yet talking, at least, not with words. Without words, it's challenging to know what to say to a baby. It’s easier to engage in an extended conversation with a toddler because they are starting to use words and phrases. It’s even easier to engage in a conversation with a chatty preschooler. But a baby? What am I supposed to do?
What’s the most successful way to converse with a baby? Think: “I’m doing the talking for both of us!” The adult is both the supporter and the interpreter of an adult-to-infant conversation. The teacher does this by talking to infants, pausing to watch the baby's reaction, and then interpreting what to say back. Ask yourself, "What might this baby say back to me?" For example:
T: Kayden, are you enjoying your pears?
T: (pauses to watch Kayden’s face while he takes a bite)
K: (takes a bite, and says "mmm")
T: Mmmm. That’s a big bite from your spoon. You like the pears; you think they are pretty tasty.
K: (takes another bite)
T: You are hungry today. Yesterday you didn’t feel like eating, but today you are making up for it!
K: (makes a sour face at the next bite)
T: (smiling) Did I remind you how you felt yesterday? You do remember!
Then, continue to watch and listen to Kayden. Keep up the conversation in a natural, back and forth fashion until Kayden signals he is ready to be done.
The above conversation is full of communication support and extension. While filling in both sides of a conversation may feel a little funny at first, it gets easier over time. Try practicing short conversations throughout the day to increase your comfort level. Before you know it, you’ll be an expert at baby talk!
Editor's note: This post was originally published in September 2017 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
The time has come for hard conversations.
That’s the feedback we have been receiving from educators across the country. There are plenty of tough conversations educators are trained, taught, or feel equipped to handle with children and families - gently bringing up a developmental concern, facilitating a disagreement between students, or explaining what happened with the classroom goldfish are all part of a day in the life. But in the last year, since the killing of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police, educators are increasingly asking for help in communicating more comfortably with young children about diversity and difference.
I was supposed to be an architect, instead I was a teacher of young children; it felt like my calling.
When I started my coursework, they tasked me with visiting multiple classrooms. It overwhelmed me when in some classrooms, children were crying, teachers were frustrated, and no one seemed to enjoy the day. I thought I had made a mistake. Thankfully, I had a professor who inspired me to continue. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the behaviors I observed in both children and teachers, the professor charged me to uncover the root of those behaviors.
And so, my journey to support social-emotional development began.
This past year of hybrid and virtual learning due to the pandemic highlighted the gaps in learning and the inequities that we already knew existed. It is apparent, now more than ever, that there needs to be a narrow focus on bridging the divides (e.g., digital) that exist and meeting students where they are in order to promote growth and put less emphasis on standardized testing. This would allow teachers to concentrate on curriculum with greater impact, differentiate their instruction, and utilize effective strategies that they know make a difference for children’s outcomes.