Promoting School Readiness with Descriptive Commenting
The Incredible Years Programme by Carolyn Webster-Stratton is designed to promote children’s academic, social and emotional competence. It offers a range of strategies and tools for parents and teachers and the programme was one of my favourite areas of learning during my training to become an Educational Psychologist. Not only does it have a strong underpinning of research, but the approach is synonymous with nurture and growth arising from positive relationships and play.
One of the foundational elements of the programme is the use of Descriptive Commenting. When playing with young children in nursery or the early primary school years, it can be instinctive to ask lots of questions. “How many wheels does it have?”. “Where is that piece going to go?”. “What’s that animal called?”. While these types of questions are well-intentioned, Carolyn Webster-Stratton argues that they focus on the product rather than the process of play and such language can be perceived as commands or corrections.
Descriptive Commenting is about entering the child’s internal world by simply describing and narrating what they are doing. This can be likened to a commentary team at a football match. We position ourselves as an “appreciative audience”, modelling and coaching the language associated with learning, persistence, feelings and social skills.
This type of descriptive commenting focuses on early academic concepts and the skills necessary for engaging effectively in play and learning tasks. Carolyn Webster-Stratton describes how the child is essentially bathed in rich language. This can be as simple as getting alongside them on the floor and naming the objects they are using and the actions they are applying. Such an approach is particularly helpful for children whose speech and language skills are delayed.
The child can also tune in to the language associated with colours, shapes, numbers, patterns and prepositions. “Academic coaching” is designed to be child-directed, where we forego a barrage of questions which may cause the child to feel that their performance is being tested. It also applies to the development of key qualities associated with school readiness, such as following instructions and working independently.
“You have the blue car and the green plane”.
“We have one, two, three circles and one, two, three, four squares”.
“The big teddy is sitting under the chair. The small teddy is on top of the chair”.
“I asked everyone to put their toys in the box. You listened so well”.
“You finished that puzzle all by yourself, by matching the pieces to the picture”.
When a child is asked to consider new content or engage in an unfamiliar task, the stress-response system is activated. Teaching involves a level of stress which enables the child to be alert enough to process the information. But there are some children who find it hard to tolerate not knowing how to do something right away or become anxious about making mistakes or having setbacks. Others may lack the focus or impulse control to stick with a task long enough to accomplish it.
We can use descriptive commenting to promote persistence; the sense that it is normal to initially find new concepts and skills a little tricky. This type of commenting helps the child to recognise their internal state when they are concentrating and working hard. By naming this state and highlighting the persistent actions shown by the child, we are conveying the important message that success comes by staying involved and persevering.
“You are focusing really hard on this”.
“I like how you’re looking so carefully and taking your time to think about where the next piece of the puzzle goes”.
“You are being really patient. It’s great that you’re having another go”.
“This is tricky, but it’s ok to make mistakes. This will get easier when we have lots of practise”.
“It looks like your friend is also finding it tough. You can try it again by working together”.
Preschool and early school-age children depend on imitating what adults do and say, as they move from the developmental stage of parallel play to longer and more complex interactions with their peers. Carolyn Webster-Stratton describes how social skills are a prerequisite for academic learning, given their association with self-regulation, communication, co-operation and problem-solving. We can use descriptive commenting and coaching statements to model and label social skills, whilst gradually introducing prompts using the same language.
“Social coaching” should be tailored to the child’s developmental stage. Some children who are focused on solitary or parallel play may need individual interactions with a teacher or learning support assistant, where they can listen to key skills being named and praised. Others may develop their skills through small groups, with the adult encouraging the children to notice what everyone is doing and offering prompts which they can use to deepen their interactions.
“I’m going to wait until you’re finished and then I’m going to have a turn”.
“I don’t think I can find the yellow brick. I need some help. Can you find another yellow brick and give it to me?”
“I see that you want to play with the cars. You can join in with your friend by saying ‘Can I play with you?’”
“You are working together to make a big tower. This is great teamwork and you’re both having lots of fun”.
“You saw that she wanted to play with the dolls and you said “You have this one”. She’s smiling because she is really happy. This is lovely sharing”.
Some children may lack an emotional vocabulary; the ability to express their feelings in words. We can notice and name the emotions that are being displayed. This gradually builds an association between the child hearing the label and the bodily sensations and thoughts which they are experiencing at the time. Carolyn Webster-Stratton refers to “emotion coaching” as a means of promoting children’s capacity to not only share these feelings with others, but also recognise the feelings of others and learn how to regulate their own emotions.
It’s important that we don’t focus solely on unpleasant or uncomfortable feelings. Labelling feelings such as joy, excitement, pride and confidence will help to create a calm and positive atmosphere. Noticing five times more positive than negative feelings is suggested as a good rule of thumb. We can draw on “persistence coaching”, by following up a comment about a difficult emotion with a positive comment about how the child is coping.
“I think you’re feeling worried about this. It’s something different from what we normally do and change can be hard at first. That’s why you’re finding it hard to focus right now”.
“You’re disappointed that play time is over. You must wish you could carry on for a while longer. I like how you’ve tidied up with everyone else. Let’s think about when you can go back to it later today”.
“It’s so frustrating to think that he wasn’t being kind to you. But you did the right thing in walking away. You can talk to him after you’ve calmed down”.
“That big smile on your face tells me that you’re really proud of yourself. You’re getting so confident with this activity”.
“You saw that she was upset and you stayed with her until an adult came over. This is so kind! She’s feeling better because you helped her”.
Commenting on children’s play rather than leading it may seem strange or even uncomfortable at first. But it has many benefits for children in the early years as we think about promoting their readiness for school. It promotes their own awareness of what they are thinking, feeling and doing, whilst giving them the language to express and build upon this awareness. Descriptive Commenting strengthens relationships between the child and the parent/teacher, providing a template for developing relationships with other children. It also enhances many of the key building blocks of learning, such as curiosity, exploration, emotional regulation and coping.
References and Further Reading
Webster-Stratton, C. (2012). Incredible Teachers: Nurturing Children’s Social, Emotional and Academic Competence. Seattle: Incredible Years Inc.
Webster-Stratton, C. (2005). The Incredible Years: A Trouble-Shooting Guide for Parents of Children Aged 2 – 8 Years. Seattle: Incredible Years Inc.