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Beautiful woman walking down a lane in park with her little daughter in pushchair, text messaging on mobile phone and smiling. Full length view

Babies love people’s faces, especially when they convey feelings of affection and the willingness to play and entertain.  Expressions of joint attention and interest that pass between young children and adults lay the foundation for important skills like language development and empathy.

Meeting children’s needs for joint attention is difficult when opportunities for face time are limited.  Parents may find the time constraints of work, commuting, and managing household tasks rob them of the energy needed to engage children in playful, reassuring conversations. Teachers may struggle with the competing needs of standards based teaching and children’s social-emotional development.

But however difficult it may be to schedule, the role of joint attention in children’s development is too important to ignore. If you need further proof, check out Sherry Turkle’s new book Reclaiming Conversation. In it she defines real time conversations as opportunities for children to learn how to attend to the thoughts and feelings of others. Repeated frequently enough, conversations help children discover who they are, what others think, and how they can contribute to the success of those around them. In other words, conversation is the vehicle through which children learn self-reflection, empathy, and mentorship.

Here are some tips to get the conversation going:

Turn the stroller around. Taking walks with toddlers is a great opportunity for observing things together and enjoying one another’s company. But only if they can see their caregivers. Otherwise, they move through the experience of being outdoors with no one to label what they are seeing, or interpret what they are experiencing.

Get off the phone. Every child cherishes individual attention from an adult. It is a very special experience which lends itself well to forming close ties, and sharing dreams and ideas. Unless the adult’s attention is diverted to someone on the phone rather than to the child walking beside her. Being ignored or left out diminishes children’s sense of self-worth and importance.

Organize a “Just Say Hello” chapter at your school. Created by Oprah Winfrey, the Just Say Hello Ambassador program provides schools with a forum to promote friendship and inclusion through the art of conversation. The starter kit is available at www.education.skype.com/justsayhello

Coming soon:

Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives, K-5

Available in November at http://www.teacherscollegepress.com or http://www.amazon.com

Visit my blog at http://www.meltdownstomastery.wordpress.com