The most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds is, in my opinion, conversation.

Michel de Montaigne

Conversations create spaces which build and nurture relationships. In these spaces, qualities of listening, patience and compassion are tacitly embedded and strengthened. It is one way we make meaning of the world in a collaborative manner, speaking with and listening to another. Conversation makes it possible to perceive and understand things in multiple ways. By articulating one’s views, thoughts and feelings, one gets in touch with oneself. Through conversations, one learns as much about oneself as one learns about another. When there is talking together, one also gains clarity to resolve the conflict and arrive at a decision. So conversations act as a two way process—looking outside and looking within. This article contains excerpts from a session on ‘Conversations with Children’ at a staff meeting in The School KFI.

Excerpt One: When my words hurt my friend

It was a Class 4 story writing session. One child who was working on gaining confidence with spellings approached the teacher, and in a very soft voice requested help with a particular word. In turn, the teacher asked him to attempt to spell it. When he did so and gave the right spelling, she appreciated his spelling ability and he went back to his writing. Neither of them noticed that one of his friends, a rather confident child, had observed the entire conversation. As the former tried to write the word, he made an error and immediately the latter child made a loud comment, “Oh my God! You still have not gotten the spelling right. You always get your spellings wrong!” The teacher intervened and took the child away and sat him aside. She approached the child who had trouble with the word, helped him again with the spelling and asked him to continue with the activity. She wrote a note to the other child asking him to observe his friend carefully and quietly. As the class ended, she asked him what he had observed. He said he saw that his friend’s face was red, his eyes looked like he was about to cry and he seemed very upset. She asked him if he knew that his friend was upset even as he spoke those words. To that the child replied that he did not know, and it wasn’t his intention to see his friend so upset. When asked what he was going to do about it, he said that he was going to apologize and tell his friend that he did not mean to hurt him. After a small pause, he said that the next time around, maybe he would try to think before speaking.

Thus the teacher, instead of lecturing the child about his insensitivity, helped him to observe the impact of his behaviour directly, and learn a deep truth.

Excerpt Two: Taking others’ things

A ten-year-old had just come into middle school and was taking time to settle down and make friends. Added to this was her difficulty with academics, and we saw that she was feeling small about herself. Conversations to help her deal with her difficulty only found her reticent and not very open to talking.

It was at this time that many students reported that some of their stationery, pencils and crayons were missing in the classroom. Around the same time, the middle school trip happened and suddenly one found this child gain in confidence, easily tackling physically daunting tasks such as rappelling and bouldering. She glowed in the appreciation of her peers as they marvelled at her strength. When we returned, I told her to continue to challenge herself physically, and this opened a channel of communication which continued over the days.

She began to trust me and our conversations became about school, her academic difficulties and her interests. One day she came to me along with a friend whose pencil pouch had gone missing. She said, “ Akka, we can go look for it. Maybe we will find it.” Her confident tone intrigued me and we went around the campus till we found the pouch at the specific place that she had led us to. I now thought that perhaps she was the one who had been taking the missing items, so I asked her to use her sense of ‘detection’ to find the other things too. She agreed immediately and as we went around the classroom, we retrieved things from different locations. I knew I had to help her understand her actions without damaging her new-found confidence.

I began talking to her—“Why would anyone take other people’s things? Should we not help this person return the things they had taken?” Interestingly, she always referred to herself in the third person, all the while expressing her anxiety and seeking reassurance for that person. I told her that it took courage to do the right thing. Slowly, all the missing items came back and each time, I acknowledged the courage of the person who had returned the things before the whole class. She would then come to me smiling and say, “I think this person has understood now what to do.” And I would only smile back.

Here the teacher has given space to the child to work out her own difficulties, without any direct confrontation, yet pointing out clearly that these were misdemeanours.

Excerpt Three: When I embarrassed my friend

I came into Class I to find two children crying. They were the best of friends but were blaming each other, “She was so nasty to me.” “I didn’t do anything and she says that she will not be my friend.” I first separated the two, got the rest of the class back to their work, helped the two to calm down and then spoke to them individually. Here is a reconstruction of my conversations with each of them.

Akka (A): “Now tell me exactly what happened.”

Child 1(C1): “I only told her that her underwear was showing.”

A: “Oh! and then…”

C1: “She told me to shut up. She was very angry with me. She told me she was not my friend, I was a bad girl, and she would never talk to me. I am not a bad girl. You know that no, Akka .”

A: “Yes I do. But why do you think she told you that? She really loves you.”

C1: “Maybe because I told her that her underwear was showing.”

A: “And why did you tell her that? Were you making fun of her?”

C1: “I would never do that.”

A: “But you know that when you tell someone something like that, it seems like you are teasing them.”

C1: “But I was not Akka . I did not want others to see the underwear and laugh at her.”

A: “Is that really what happened?”

C1: “No. They all started laughing. I really love her Akka . She is like a sister to me. I did not like it when they laughed.”

A: “How did they know that her underwear was showing?”

C1: “Because I shouted it out to her.”

A: “So you really did not mean to hurt her or tease her.”

C1: “NO. I really wanted to help her.”

A: “Then why do you think she got angry?”

C1: “No, Akka I think she was not angry. I think she felt sad and got upset. That is why she shouted at me. I think I should have gone to her and whispered that her underwear is showing, so that the others would not hear me. I should not have shouted.”

A: “So what will you do now?”

C1: “I will go and give her a big hug and say, ‘sorry’.”

I then spoke with the second child.

Akka (A): “Do you feel like talking to me? I can see you are very upset.”

Child 2 (C2): “I am feeling very sad. She is always shouting at me. I love her so much.”

A: “But you told her to shut up, and that you will never be her friend.”

C2: “That is because she was very rude to me. She shouted so loudly that everyone looked at me and started laughing.”

A: “Do you think she was making fun of you?”

C2: “No! She would never do that. I know she loves me. But she should not have shouted.”

A: “What do you think she should have done?”

C2: “If she wanted to tell me, she should have come and told me softly in my ear.”

A: “Then you would not have felt sad.”

C2: “No.”

A: “So what shall we do now? Will you remain angry and sad?”

C2: “No. I will go and tell her what she should have done.”

With very young children, talking to them individually helps them see the whole picture, and resolve the conflict with each other.

Excerpt Four: The ‘difficult’ child

Here was a child who had a difficult relationship with both peers and teachers. He had to be kept away often because he physically hurt others, destroyed others’ belongings or spoiled materials kept in class. He did not know how to regulate his behaviour as he was unfamiliar with The School’s culture of not imposing harsh consequences on children.

The approach I took was to indirectly talk of the joys of having friends, chatting with Akka and being part of activities. I also made a conscious attempt to meet the child briefly every day, to ask how the day went, whether he enjoyed playing with his friends. He shared that talking and listening made him understand things better, and he actually started smiling more often. This child seemed to need affection: a small hug, an arm around the shoulders, or a ruffling of the hair. The softening was palpable.

Here the child experienced a feeling that there was someone who was really interested in him. The teacher’s affection, explicit in her actions, helped the child feel wanted and this brought a positive change in his overall behaviour.

Excerpt Five: I like that boy

As I arrived in school one morning, a seven-year-old girl came running to me, and hugged me, crying inconsolably. She was nervous and frightened. I calmed her down, reassuring her that I will help her with her difficulty. Once quiet, she described an incident from the previous day. She liked one of the boys in her class, and had told this to a close friend. She also chose to sit beside him during class. Though she did not feel strange or worried about her action at that time, later on she felt that this action of hers would be misconstrued and misread. She felt anxious, embarrassed and a little ashamed about this feeling or desire to be with a particular boy. I helped her see that the feelings she expressed were honest and not as grave as she made it out to be. Maybe the not-so-nice feeling stemmed from stereotypical ideas of boy-girl relationships from peers or the media. I counselled her to look positively at such feelings of love and affection, but at the same time also told her that it need not be an exclusive relationship in school.

The child was helped to observe her own fears and the way she succumbed to stereotypical images.

Excerpt Six: Why is the world unfair?

The Class XI students had finished an interaction with students in rural Rajasthan. They were from different worlds, and shared their concerns, aspirations and questions. This two-hour conversation threw light on their circumstances and was quite a moving experience.

We then began the next leg of our journey. The class slowly got into a celebratory mood and started singing popular songs. Suddenly, one student came to the teachers sitting at the front of the bus, and began to cry. She was touched by the difficulties the rural students faced, and wondered at the unfairness of life. She was well-off, while for many teenagers in the same country, life was completely different. She felt like doing something about this, such as joining organizations like the ones we had just visited. She also wondered how her own classmates could so quickly forget what they were moved by just half an hour back, and sing so happily.

It was a delicate conversation. In an attempt to make her feel better, we did not want to trivialize her feelings. We did not give immediate justifications like the world is full of such contradictions, and one should learn to become tough and deal with it. Nor did we want to push her into an activist mode of solving the world’s problems. So we spoke about what it is to stay with a question. How does one deepen the question for oneself, and what is the place of an emotional response? Slowly the conversation turned to observations of the town we were passing through. She stayed quiet for some time and then joined her friends.

The teachers allowed the student to stay with her questions and feelings, without pushing her to seek solutions.

A conversation is like walking together through a situation. It is not rushed, and gives space for reflection. It helps to build meaningful relationships with the children and to understand them in a deeper but non-intrusive manner.