Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

This Season’s Best Gift for Students and Teachers: A Box of Affection

Encouragement, learning, and teaching should always be interwoven.

February 2, 2007

Delaine Eastin, the former California state superintendent of public instruction, often tells the story of being a shy girl until a drama teacher told her she ought to try out for a play. Eastin learned that she loved performing onstage. She became a riveting speaker, a popular state legislator, and the highest elected education official in the state -- all sparked by one comment from one compassionate teacher.

Educators and parents have long known the power of encouragement and positive affirmation for children. Research confirms their wisdom based on experience and instinct. A 1995 study of verbal communication between parents and young children by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley was given new prominence in a recent New York Times magazine article on closing the achievement gap. Hart and Risley studied forty-two families in Kansas City and documented the quantity and quality of how parents spoke to their children, beginning as newborns until the age of three.

The researchers discovered that higher-income parents had spoken about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements to their infants and toddlers by that age. Parents with lower incomes encouraged and praised their children only 75,000 times, but spoke discouraging words much more frequently, about 200,000 times. That flood of half a million encouragements by more affluent parents (more than 600 per day!) included not only more words but also more complex words and sentences, leading their children to connect language to thinking. As New York Times writer Paul Tough put it, "As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another -- all of which stimulated intellectual development."

Can affection "cause" intelligence? Can kind words from a parent's heart stimulate a child's brain? Tough wrote, "By age three, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children's IQs correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average IQ among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average IQ of 79."

Other research has clarified this finding: It's not so much parents' social class or economic background but their understanding of how to talk to children that determines how well their children develop their own thinking skills. My favorite example comes from the childhood of one of our most distinguished educators, Dr. James Comer, Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry, director at the Yale Child Study Center, and founder of the innovative Comer School Development Project. In his book Maggie's American Dream, Comer described the parenting style of his mother, who cleaned houses for a living.

When Comer was a young boy, during their bus rides together, Maggie would point out and explain the ads on the bus ceiling and places along the route. Without any formal education, Maggie raised five children who went on to earn thirteen college and advanced degrees between them. In the 1930s, she naturally understood what educational research took decades to prove.

Of course, good teachers give students the gift of affection all year long. During this season of giving, and armed with the research of Hart and Risley, the climate of our schools might improve if more teachers gave more compliments to students -- just a pat on the back for a job well done or a word of encouragement for each student. Think of it as a verbal candy cane to go along with those sweet treats passed out the last day of class.

Teachers could use some affection, too. They are underappreciated and underpaid, and under a lot of undeserved pressure. Back in 1992, George Lucas stood on a worldwide stage at the Oscars and received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for lifetime achievement. It sits in a glass case near our offices at Skywalker Ranch. When I point out the award to visiting educators, they often recall that moment onstage when he thanked his teachers (which, by the way, Oscar winners rarely do).

Lucas said, "I'd especially like to thank a group of devoted individuals who, apart from my parents, have done the most to shape my life -- my teachers. From kindergarten through college, their struggle -- and it was a struggle -- to help me grow and learn was not in vain. And it is greatly appreciated. I've always tried to be aware of what I say in my films, because all of us who make motion pictures are teachers, teachers with very loud voices. But we will never match the power of the teacher who is able to whisper in a student's ear."

For all of us who are parents or community partners with schools, let's resolve to compliment teachers and thank them for the important national service they are providing. There are more than 3 million of them, and many more of us. Affection should be one of our nation's greatest renewable resources for fueling the success of our students and teachers.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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