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ESD's Head of Middle School Addresses the "Pitfalls" of Think-Alouds

At the beginning of each month, The Episcopal School of Dallas Division Heads write a letter to their respective parent community. This post by Head of Middle School Jonathan Chein was sent to parents earlier this month.

The "think aloud" is a time-tested teaching strategy, employed to share one's thinking or decision-making process with students. Reading teachers may incorporate a think-aloud when reading a passage aloud to share strategies on looking for context clues to help with comprehension or making sense of an unfamiliar word. A math teacher will employ a think-aloud to share their decision-making process when diagnosing a problem and deciding what process to follow, or in checking whether the answer arrived at seems appropriate for the situation. Think-alouds, when done well, help clear up faulty reasoning and clarify important components of a concept or process. 

Like all parents, I regularly find myself doing think-alouds with my children, though they tend to be a bit different than school think-alouds, "We're not stopping for ice cream because I want you to eat your dinner; Let's go for a bike ride before it gets unbearably hot; Last time we stayed out super late, you were walking disasters the next day."  We all know that our actions speak louder than our words and that our children are always watching and taking notice of our actions. This is definitely true in my family, however, whenever I discover an instance of my children misattributing the connection between my reasoning and my actions ("I want you to play outside after school and get a little dirty, just change out of your uniform and white school shoes first."), I am reminded of the added benefit of parent commentary beyond the directive.  
 
As much as I appreciate using think-alouds to share my values with my children, my time working in schools has helped identify two common practices that compromise the effectiveness of using the think-aloud as a parenting tool.
 
The first pitfall to parenting think-alouds is that parenting think-alouds usually focus on the present and neglect all of the past learnings and experiences from long ago. In a school like ESD, there is no shortage of accomplished parents in the community.  No matter your degrees, accolades, or accomplishments, your children are well aware of your success. What they are often less aware of are the struggles, setbacks, and mistakes you had to overcome to get to where you are now. When these challenges, mistakes, and obstacles are not part of our narrative, it's easy to see how our children might interpret their own struggles as evidence of underachievement or not living up to our expectations. 
 
The second potential pitfall is that parenting think-alouds are often close relatives of "you should." If you have a child who longs for more "you shoulds," you could have stopped reading long ago.  From what I've seen during my time with middle schoolers, most respond to each "you should" with a more pronounced eye roll, sigh, or even anxiety. If you're like me, your parenting think-alouds center around your thinking about your child's behavior. There is definitely a time and place for these, but there's also a ton of untapped potential in sharing your thinking and reasoning in situations that don't directly involve your children. Consider a think-aloud with your child on how you plan to follow up on an awkward or insensitive interaction you had with a colleague or friend.  Consider a think-aloud with your child about how to respond when you think you offended or upset a friend. Of course, there are many times when it is best to make decisions privately, but providing your child access to your thinking that is not directly related to them can actually be some of the most effective parenting. By freeing your child of feelings of pressure and judgment, they are much more receptive to the lessons you are trying to impart.
 
Just like the classroom, there is a time and place for parenting think-alouds.  If you have found a good variation or method that you find particularly impactful, please share.  Have you experienced a think-aloud mishap? I'd love to hear about that, too.

Here's to a great November.

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Friday, November 1, 2019