Talking Points

One of my esteemed colleagues was bloviating how she, “Never talks during tutoring and lets the student do all the talking…” My question to her was, really? In all my dozens of years of dealing with adolescents, I have known many to be – silent. (Especially when it comes time to participate in schoolwork.) Silence is often a sign of shyness, embarrassment, anger, or anxiety. It usually occurs at the beginning of a tutoring session, when the student sits “exposed”, as failing in the eyes of their parents, to a stranger. Kids use this silent treatment as a way to freeze out the tutor, to get the tutor to leave them alone, or to “push a tutor’s buttons”. Under the surface, something else is going on: the silent treatment gives the child a feeling of power and control over the situation. For my part, that does not work on me, because I can humble myself to reach the student by talking about everything and anything – until they either smile or respond. In other words, just like a classroom, I proceed with the lesson plan, “yakking all the time”. The second key thing is to make the lesson interesting. Sure, you are the penultimate authority on uniform microwave energy fields, but you are there to instruct not impress – or worse yet, to “act impressive”. Be jovial and show concern and interest in the student and their situation.

If you do not give the silent treatment any power, the student will stop using it because “silence” does not get them anywhere. If you make the mistake of giving silence the power over you, by acting “all righteous and huffy” the student will rely on that silent treatment to get their needs met. Instead, you have to coach the student by reminding them, “Refusing to talk to me will not solve your problems.” The key is to motivate the student to give up their broken problem-solving skill (silence) and find an appropriate one that works. Be humble and let them know that their success is a mutually shared goal. As the student participates more, by talking, you can take that cue and slow down your rhetoric! Let the learning flow BOTH ways. By listening to the student, you learn what they know (or do not know) and by talking, you are able to guide them to understand the material. In my mind, I can still picture two silent people staring petulantly at each other for an hour, really (?).

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