Why Children Talk in Class

My eleven year old son came home from school not long ago and informed me that his teacher had cancelled the end-of-the-year class play. She was frustrated, it seems, with the class’s refusal to stop talking and sit quietly through their lessons.

While I certainly understood her frustration (as did my son) I couldn’t help but think that the blame lies not so much with the students, but with the structure of the students’ day.

As I teach the many families I’ve worked with in therapy over the years, our lives are made up of different developmental stages, and in each stage we learn the skills we need to move forward in a healthy manner.

Children in the elementary school years learn valuable life-skills through their interactions with other students, and yet we’ve politicized our schools to such an extent that we’ve removed all opportunity for these skills to be learned.

With the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) the focus has come to weigh heavily on test scores and accountability. These are important measurements, to be sure, but one drawback to the current focus is that many of our schools no longer have scheduled recess periods or other opportunities for students to interact.

By removing such opportunities, we not only disavow our children of an opportunity to learn needed skills, we also virtually guarantee they’ll find a less healthy outlet.

In the school my children attend, a favored consequence is that of “silent lunch.” Silent lunch may apply to the classroom as a whole, or it may apply only to specific children who are singled out to sit at a table away from other children. When a child – or a classroom – becomes too rowdy, the end result is an enforced period of silence.

Unfortunately, this technique ultimately results in the opposite of the intended desire. Our children have little to no recess or opportunity for social interaction, so they begin to speak out in class. When this happens, the consequence is that they have even less time for social interaction, as now lunch – typically a time to interact – is off limits.

The end result is that the child is set up to fail. Children not only need some outlet for social interaction, they’re developmentally incapable of spending six or more hours in a classroom environment without such an outlet. So what happens? They talk, of course.

A much better intervention, rather than punishing children by taking away all opportunity for interaction, would be to reward children for staying on task during learning periods by allowing them a few minutes between periods in which to talk.

In this way, we teach children to focus on and respect the learning process, we reward the children for the desired behavior, and we allow the children the time they need to ensure the appropriate mastering of needed developmental milestones.