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Rebecca Rolland on 'The Art of Talking with Children'

On the podcast: Rebecca Rolland ’17 shares her journey from creative writing student to speech pathologist to author.

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

Whether you're a parent, teacher, or simply someone who will one day encounter a child, Rebecca Rolland ’17 has advice for how to respond to kids, and most importantly, how to listen. Amanda McGregor interviews our guest.

Find a transcript of this episode below.

About our guest

Rebecca Rolland is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and serves on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. She is also an oral and written language specialist in the Neurology Department of Boston Children's Hospital. As a nationally certified speech-language pathologist, she has worked clinically with populations ranging from early childhood through high school and has provided teacher professional development. In addition to a master's in Creative Writing from Lesley, she has an Ed.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, an M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology from the MGH Institute of Health Professions, an M.A. in English from Boston University, and a B.A. in English from Yale.

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  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling

    [music playing] This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. I'm Georgia Sparling, and today's episode is a little different as my colleague Amanda McGregor sits down with Lesley Creative Writing alum and speech language pathologist Rebecca Rolland. Whether you have kids, work with kids, or at some point in your life will probably encounter kids, I think you'll learn a lot from their conversation. Here's Amanda.

    Amanda McGregor 

    Welcome to Lesley University's Why We Write podcast. I'm Amanda McGregor. Does your child have nothing to say when you ask them about their day? Are you an educator who struggles to get students to open up? Are you in a busy household where most conversations center on scheduling and the nuts and bolts of the week? You are not alone. And it doesn't have to be that way according to researcher and author Rebecca Rolland, who has written a new book "The Art of Talking with Children: The Simple Keys To Nurturing Kindness, Creativity, and Confidence In Kids." Rebecca earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley in 2017 and holds a Doctor of Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She's a nationally certified speech language pathologist who has worked with children of all ages, and she serves on the faculty at Harvard Medical School among her many professional endeavors. Rebecca Rolland is here with me today to discuss her new book, her writing process, her journey as an author and some expert advice on improving conversation skills with children. Hi, Rebecca. Welcome to Why We Write. Thanks for joining us.

    Rebecca Rolland 

    Hey, thanks for having me.

    Amanda

    It's great to be here with you. So I'm fascinated by the subject of your book, both as a parent of a six year old and an eight year old, and as a member of the Lesley University community, where we are focused on child development and education. I wanted to start by asking at what point did you decide it was important to take all of this experience you have as a clinician and an educator and create this resource for people?

    Rebecca 

    Definitely, yeah. So really, it was when I realized, I was researching conversation, actually, as a speech pathologist and as a doctoral student. And it was actually once having my first child, who's now 10, but I started looking at all the parenting books around there, because I wanted to advise myself on parenting. And I realized most of the parenting books were really focused around kind of discipline, behavior management, how we can get kids not to have tantrums, and even more basic things like diapering, and sort of the logistics. But there was really very little about actually how to have conversations with kids that were kind of deeper, that helped them stretch. I actually realized in my research that we know a lot about how we can do that, that wasn't being transferred to the parenting world. So that was my initial inspiration

    Amanda

    That's great. And you've really identified a void. When I think about it, there's so many like how tos of parenting out there, but not necessarily the the dialogue piece, which is so important. So, in terms of your journey as a writer, have you always been a writer? Tell me a little bit about your history and passion for writing.

    Rebecca

    Yeah, so I actually started out as a poet. So in high school, I was writing poetry and very interested in language. And I studied poetry, actually, throughout college and then actually, as I studied more, read more, I felt as though my poetry wasn't quite doing all I wanted it to do. There were other issues I wanted to take on, especially relationships, conflicts, stories, and so on. And so I started to think, "Oh, maybe there's other genres I could explore." So I know poetry can do those things, but for me, it wasn't really working that way. So I started looking into fiction and writing a lot more short stories and novels. And actually, as I explored more, I started really becoming interested in the blend between fiction and nonfiction, and actually how we can use fictional techniques in nonfiction. So things like dialogue, characterization, and so on. So I kind of have a journey, I guess, through three different genres. And I'm still toggling between them all.

    Amanda

    What drew you to Lesley's MFA in Creative Writing program?

    Rebecca

    Yeah, so there were a couple of things. One was just that I really loved the faculty. I felt like I had read a lot of their work already. And I thought they were very inspirational and just really diverse in terms of their interest. So I really appreciated that. And I also liked the fact that there's an interdisciplinary studies component. So already, I was sort of torn between fiction and nonfiction and I ended up actually doing the fiction track but with an interdisciplinary studies in nonfiction, so it really allowed me to blend those two things. And I also really liked the low residency aspect of it because as a busy working parent, I realized I wasn't actually able, usually, to get away for 10 day residencies or long stretches of time when I would be away from my kid, so that was really fabulous. And actually, a funny story is that I did my final residency from my hospital room after having my second child.

    Amanda

    Oh my gosh, really?

    Rebecca

    This was before Zoom was a thing really, but they were incredibly flexible. I had my son early and right at the start of my last residency, and I was really wanting to join, and they actually let me do it virtually. [laughs] Which I'm very grateful for.

    Amanda

    Wow, that is, that's a story. A story for the ages [laughs]

    Rebecca

    Somebody was like, "Well, how could you do that?" And I was like, "Well, he's asleep most of the time." So it worked out. [laughs]

    Amanda

    Wow. How did your studies at Lesley shaped the trajectory of this book?

    Rebecca

    I started out writing a lot of personal essays, just sort of family stories, memoir type stories. As I learned more fiction techniques, I started wanting to write more portrait,  portraits of other people, portraits of families I was seeing and so on. I started taking interdisciplinary studies, but really on an independent study basis. I was working with faculty at Lesley, but then also people that I found in other universities who were doing the kind of work that I was really interested in. And so I actually started shaping the story that way, and realizing that it was partly a memoir, but there was a lot more I could do if I expanded it and thought about kind of takeaways for educators and parents.

    Amanda

    Speaking of educators and parents, can you talk about how your journey as a professional and as a parent, how those have intersected? And it really seems like they have very much so in this book,

    Rebecca

    Definitely. So in this book, I really do kind of wear three hats. So it's partly a memoir  that I talk about stories of my children, my friends' children, and so on. But it's also using my work as a clinician and also as a researcher, so I'm often toggling between kind of what do we know in the research and then what's actually feasible or possible in your life as a parent. For me, that's been a really fun and kind of fruitful intersection, because I'm kind of constantly learning both in the research, but then I'm also trying to apply things in my own life and realizing "Well, that might be good in a lab, but when you're actually sitting with a five year old and a 10 year old, it doesn't work so well." So I think that's kind of what may be more unique about this book in that I really bring it to my own life as well.

    Amanda

    Could you talk about this concept of rich talk and the ABCs that you define in the book for our listeners?

    Rebecca

    I do you really talk about the ABCs of rich talk, which are kind of the main components of having more meaningful conversations. And A is just for Adaptive, so meaning that you're moving with your child's flow in the moment, but also over time. So for example, in the moment, if your child is kind of in a closed or shut down mood, you might be more reflective with them. You might not probe as much because they don't feel like they're responding to that. But then even over time, so if some parents say, "Well, my child is no longer talking to me face to face, they're sort of turning 12 or 13, and they don't really want to open up a lot when we're sitting down together." So you might find that "Oh, but we do talk more when we're on long car rides, or when we're working out together," or something like that. So you start to adapt in that way. B stands for the Back and Forth. So I talk a lot about getting away from talking at kids and starting to talk with kids, meaning that you're really listening to what they say. You're really attending to what might be behind that. And you're having a balance of talk and silence. So it's not just you preparing a speech, but it's really changing based on what your child says. And C is Child Driven. So the idea isn't that you let your child do whatever they want, or you run your parenting as your child's leader, but it is saying that you're starting a lot of conversations from what is on your child's mind. And that might mean positively, so your child is excited or wants to talk to you about something, but also negatively if something's worrying your child or on your child's mind. And those three things together, I think, I found were really key in terms of making more meaningful conversations.

    Amanda

    Can you give an example of a conversation prompt that can meet kids at their level and help evolve conversation in this moment by moment way?

    Rebecca

    Sure. So in the book, I have a chapter on play and creativity and I talk a lot about different questions and comments, we can ask that can support children's creativity in that way. A couple of them which I really like, are, how might we or how could we? The idea here is just thinking about expanding possibilities, so going beyond what's right in front of you, and actually doing something a little bit more expansive. For example, if your child says, "That's a green robot." You might say, "Oh, I like that green robot. I wonder, what can we name it? What do you think we could do with it? Or how might we make it fly in the air for a second? Or how could we flip it over?" So you're actually helping your child think of possibilities, rather than just focusing on how many wheels does it have or that kind of thing. Because I do think that often with young kids, we tend to focus more on what I call closed ended questions, so those questions that have one right answer, rather than more open ended ones.

    Amanda

    Yeah, I think this really unlocks creativity and really interesting conversation. I've been applying it with my kids since reading your book and it's incredible. I can get my kids to just do more than talk about the same Star Wars things over and over, really  go new places, which is great. You share a really poignant  anecdote in your book about a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts with your daughter. Would you mind talking about that briefly?

    Rebecca

    So this was just before my son was born, actually. My daughter was about five ad we were at the Museum of Fine Arts and she was in the mummies section, which we often were in, because she loved the mummies and this was a big interest of hers. So we were sitting there, and it was pretty quiet. There was nobody there that day. And she started asking me, "Well, where did the mummies go?" And first, I didn't know what she meant, and then I realized she didn't mean their bodies, but more of like their spirits, or their souls, or some other part of them. I wasn't really sure what to say, because we weren't really religious, so I said, "Oh, I don't really know." And she started asking more questions. So she said, "Well, where did you go before you were born? Or where did they go before they were born? And where did you go before you were born?" And I said, "Well, I really don't know that." And it sort of took a while just to pause and kind of say, "That's a really good question. And I turned it back to her, so I said, "Well, where were you before you were born?" And she thought for a second, too. And then she said, "Oh, I know". And I was like, "Oh, you do? Okay." And she said, "Well, I was an old man and I got sick of being so old and so I turned into a baby. And that's how I became here." And she just looked at me, it was really funny, because she didn't laugh, it was just very straightforward. And I was like, "Oh, do you think so?" And she was like, "Definitely. That's definitely what happened." And so I just thought that was so interesting to me. I started to analyze, you know, what about that conversation have made her say something like that. Because she was a pretty thoughtful kid, but she didn't usually talk like that. Most five year olds don't. I realized it was sort of having that chance for a back and forth. So we were looking at something concrete, we were looking at mummies, and we were just having that sense of pausing, and I didn't pretend to be an expert. I realized that there was that as well. So I didn't feel sort of ashamed of saying, "I don't know," or I didn't say, "Well, let me just tell you the answer to that." I really gave the space for her to think it through and verbalize it. And I realized that those things were really key components of these more meaningful conversations, but that kind of set me on a journey of trying to figure out, how can we have more of these, not necessarily that conversation, but deeper conversations like that.

    Amanda

    I think that's something that is really encouraging, or something I took away in the book, is that it's okay not to have the answers and that exploring answers together is also part of having these really rich conversations. I think sometimes parents are like, you want to have the answers, and  I want to remember what the speed of light is, or whatever their questions might be, but it's okay to also explore answers together.

    Rebecca

    Exactly. I think what's really funny is, it's not just sort of like, oh, that's nice to do. But really, there is a ton of research saying that if you're able to verbalize your thoughts and your questions aloud, like, if you actually can take them through, "I don't know, but my guess is this, but I once read this," that kind of thing, so if you can actually take them through why you're thinking what you're thinking, that can really support them in thinking through things as well. So it's not just that it's nice, which it totally is, but also that it really is supporting them to do their own cognitive work, too.

    Amanda

    Part of the title of your book is "Nurturing Kindness, Creativity and Confidence in Kids." Could you talk about how that ties into this? And how the art of talking to children can foster those important qualities?

    Rebecca

    Definitely, yeah. So the book is really divided into chapters. Each of them takes on, their seven pillars I call, so seven things or qualities that we really usually want to develop in kids, and then that conversation can help with. I was really surprised to find in my research, that conversation can develop vocabulary, obviously, but so many other skills too, things like the confidence, kindness, creativity. Each chapter really takes the reader through a journey of how can you do that in each of these ways. And for example, empathy, there's a few components of empathy that we don't always think about. One of them is perspective taking. So I talked about the idea of having storytelling conversations. For example, if someone says something negative to you in a store, you can start to tell a story out loud and ask questions to yourself of why might that person be in such a mood or be in such a state that they would want to say that kind of thing. So rather than just shutting it down and saying, "Oh, they're a mean person," or "I don't like them," you can start to reflect and say, "Well, I'm having compassion for that person and for the situation they might be in." And another component is known as compassionate empath, the idea of taking action, because you feel something for someone else. And there, I really distinguished between just being helpful in general, from empathy, which is really more about getting to know the full person in front of you. One example I give is if someone is sick, so say, your neighbor is sick next door, and you think, "Well, people are sick like flowers," so you bring her flowers. But for example, she might be allergic to flowers, or she might just want you to visit with her, or she might want a cake, whatever she wants. But the point is really recognizing that each person has their individual wants and needs and goals, and that getting to know that specifically is much more "helpful" than just being helpful in general.

    Amanda

    That's an important life skill and this is just really good for all of us, child or not.

    Rebecca

    Exactly. [laughs] A lot of people have said, "This book would be helpful for talking with adults, too."

    Amanda

    No, I think it really is. And talking to kids doesn't come naturally for everyone and sometimes it can be hard to know where to start. What advice would you give to a teacher or a parent or someone who's trying to engage with a child and doesn't really know where to start?

    Rebecca

    So I often feel that sometimes people have that anxiety or have a sense of "What should I say?" Or "I don't know when it comes to this conversation." And I think the good news is, the vast majority of kids will tell you, whether it's in words, or even just by what they appear to be interested in. even if you have a young child who's not even speaking, really, but who crawls over to something, and starts grabbing on like a box of tissues, or a cup, or whatever, you can start a conversation from that. What I emphasize in the book is really that conversations don't need to be about mummies or ancient Egypt or anything like that, like you can have a great conversation about a spoon or about your dinner, whatever it is. I would just say, to start by observing, start by noticing what seems to be on a child's mind or interesting to a child. And then I would say, ask a question or comment, and just wait. Even something as basic as like, "Oh, tell me more about that?" Or "What do you like about that?" Just something so basic. Oftentimes, kids are waiting for those openings and we don't often think to give them, so we actually often do have that more prepared speech, but that doesn't really get at what kids are actually interested in at the moment.

    Amanda

    Yeah, I think that's really good advice. I think it's easy to ask, I forget the term, like closed ended questions, but like "What is your favorite color? What is your favorite food?" That's a pretty easy one word answer, but you're giving us tools to use broader questions that really open them up to sharing what they want to share, and then you have that back and forth.

    Rebecca

    Exactly.

    Amanda

    So now that your book is out, and you're sharing it with the world and giving interviews and talks, what kind of reactions are you getting? And has anything surprised you?

    Rebecca

    Yes, I've been it's been really fun, actually, because I have been talking to a range of people, both educators, researchers, and lots of parents. What's been really nice is that a lot of people have started trying out some of these strategies with kids, either in the classroom or in their homes. And they've said to me, some really nice things, which are just that they've been surprised, for example, to really hear their kids thinking out loud, which they weren't necessarily noticing before. One parent said her daughter was talking about erosion, which she had learned in school, and she wasn't totally clear on what it was. And the mom said, "Well, just tell me what you think about it. What have you learned? Tell me more." And actually, she said, "For the first time, I really saw my daughter's wheels turning , so I could really hear her as she was struggling with this concept." And she realized she knew actually a lot more about it than she thought. She had some misconceptions, the mom was able to kind of help her, but she also really could start to articulate a lot more than the mom had expected. So I thought that was really cool, because it sort of shows that even doing something as simple as putting more of the work on the child, more of the conversational work, can help kids really expand on what they already think they know. I think that is really nice.

    Amanda

    Do you ever get questions from parents or educators on difficult topics? Like conflict or violence or things that are more weighty or heavier, and how we appropriately engage in back and forth around those subjects?

    Rebecca

    Definitely. Yeah. I've had a lot of those conversations recently, especially about grief, trauma and war, obviously, because that's on a lot of people's minds. And I think a really similar framework applies. So I talked about three E's in the book, which are just kind of strategies to make these conversations work. The first is just Expanding, which just means really getting a better sense of what the child is thinking. And I think especially for these heavier topics, it's really important because kids can have a lot of misconceptions about these topics and they can actually be even scarier than they actually are. Some people say, in Boston, I've had kids say, like, "Is the war right next to me right now?" So they don't really know, and it feels, because it's in the news all the time, it feels as though the war is right next door, or something like that. Actually talking through what kids think as a starting point is really helpful in terms of helping them deal with these difficult topics. The second is Exploring with them, kind of how this is actually happening. So what's actually going on, taking the time to research together, to understand together ,and then evaluating afterwards. The third E is Evaluating, and just to consider,"Well, how are you feeling now about things?" And recognizing that, especially with these heavier topics, it's so important to check in regularly and to realize that "Okay, we can't necessarily talk about it all now, but we'll come back to it  as we're both ready for it."

    Amanda

    What do your kids think of the book? Are they aware of it?

    Rebecca

    Yeah. It's funny, because I have lots of copies in the house now, which was sent by the publisher. It's been interesting, my son, who's five, is aware that it exists, but he's not really aware beyond that. But he laughs about it. He hears people call me "Professor," and he laughs and says, "I beat the professor," when he plays chess with me. [laughs] He just likes to make fun of that, which is cute. And my daughter, who's 10, she definitely knows about it. She hasn't read it yet, but she really likes social media. She's not on any social media, but she would like to be, so she keeps trying to vie for my social media assistant position, [laughs] which is really funny. She's always trying to think about Instagram, or what I could post on things. And she's very excited about the book, so she wants to organize events and things. [laughs] So it's been fun. It's been a fun journey with kids, for sure.

    Amanda

    That's great. How long did this project take from the kernel of the idea to where we are today?

    Rebecca

    Yes, that's a good question. I would say, at least two to three years, from the time that I had the proposal. But what's interesting is I'd been writing personal essays a lot before that, so it was just kind of an ongoing process of me sorting through experience, trying to figure out kind of what I should write about. What was really funny is actually I proposed something different when I went out with my initial query. It was actually about helicopter parenting, which is interesting, because I got some feedback. This publisher, HarperOne, said "We love your work. We love the way you write, but we don't love the topic as much. So why don't you write about something else?" Actually, I submitted a new proposal in just under a week and they accepted that proposal, which was great. But at the same time, it meant that I had to start kind of a very, very brief proposal, and write a whole book from that. So that was daunting. But it was definitely a fun journey after that.

    Amanda

    That's so interesting.

    Rebecca

    Yeah, it was kind of strange the way that it all happened.

    Amanda

    But it seems like it all worked out.

    Rebecca

    Exactly.

    Amanda

    Will we see a book on helicopter parenting in the future from you?

    Rebecca

    [laughs] I don't think so, but I think it's sort of infused in the book, kind of thread throughout on just how to not, hover over kids and that kind of thing. But yeah, I don't know that I'll be writing a whole book about it. [laughs] You never know.

    Amanda

    [music plays] Well, Rebecca, I really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much for speaking with us, for sharing your expertise and advice with the world. I really think it's such a great resource. I hope people enjoy it as much as I have.

    Rebecca

    Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. This was great.

    Amanda

    You're welcome.

    Georgia  

    Thank you for listening to Why We Write. Next week is our last episode of the season and we'll be joined by Saraciea J Fennell. Saraciea is a writer, a publicist, an editor, and the founder behind an initiative to bring books and authors to the Bronx. That's dropping in your feed in two weeks. And in the meantime, if you would rate and review us on your favorite podcatcher, we'd really appreciate it. Alright, we'll see you soon. [music fades out]