What is your workplace word gap?

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At Hempsall’s over recent months we have been doing a lot more work that focuses on children’s speech, language and communication (SLC).  We’ve held seminars on closing the word gap, and we have started coordinating Derby’s Opportunity Area funded TALK Derby programme www.talkderby.org.uk for example.  And whilst we’re busy working out ways to support practitioners, parents, professionals with children’s learning and development through SLC, it got me thinking about using such techniques in the workplace.  With the goal of supporting everyone’s development, learning and relationships.  Surely, the more we integrate practise, the more we build-in better behaviours in all our work.

The phrase ‘word gap’ stemmed from iconic research in the US (Hart and Risley 1995).  They found disadvantaged children heard a massive 30 million words fewer than their more advantaged peers.  A shocking finding, and something supported by a raft of other research since.  And it wasn’t just about quantity either, the quality was also important.  SLC deficits are now proven to be powerful forces; holding back children’s life chances.  Could it be the same in the workplace I wonder?  Well I certainly believe information is power, and communication is the most potent tool of the leader.  Surely there are lessons that can be transferred from our childcare practice to the workplace.

Top of the list for me is ‘shared and sustained thinking’: which has been defined as “an episode in which two or more individuals ‘work together’… to solve a problem” that sounds just like teamwork doesn’t it?  Importantly, “both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend” (Siraj-Blatchford et al 2002).  The leader therefore needs to ensure this actually happens and is not a shallow and tokenistic occurrence.

Next, we talk a lot, don’t we, of supporting children to move away from devices and reducing screen time.  I don’t believe this amazing mind-blowing technology we all benefit from in ways past generations could only dream of is always a bad thing.  That said, we all need to think as adults about how attached we are to our ‘phones, PCs and tablets, and how we hide behind them and email.  Because we can miss real opportunities for meaningful interpersonal dialogue and relationships.  Think, should I ‘talk’ about this instead in person or on the telephone?  Even if you receive an email, would your response be better by verbal and in person?  We need to take more time and slow down so we improve the quality and quantity of words we share.  And that is coming from someone who is the master of the briefest of brief emails – I must confess.  We can all try harder, me included.

Finally, I’ve written a lot about questioning and listening techniques in this column, and these are as relevant in this context as in any other.  What’s best here is ensuring we use open-ended questions, and employ proper listening and that this is encouraged across the whole team, at all times.  And one last thought is we must ensure we match up our most experienced staff members to our least experienced or newest ones, so we can share the modelling of the very best practise for the next generation of managers.

This piece first appeared in Teach Early Years Magazine.

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