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Wonderland: What we Need is Quality and Quantity Time
by Roberta Sergant

In my third/fourth grade classroom we just finished reading Alice in Wonderland. One of my students’ favorite chapters was about the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Seated around the table, Alice, the Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse engage in a great deal of non-sensical banter where everyone is talking and no one is actually listening. The characters jump from subject to subject, each with a line of thought that appears to makes sense only to the speaker. Still, Alice leaves the table enriched for having been there, even if she never did actually drink any tea.

In many ways this scene reminds me of the way we communicate around the table in our home. A guest at one of our family meals might also have a hard time deciphering the way our family members communicate. One child might start talking about her day, difficulties and decisions and that line of thought might be picked up by an adult, only to shift to an altogether different train of thought. Jokes might be told, with punch lines half forgotten, only to be re-invented by another person. All the while, a running battle of puns would be exchanged, breaking only for a truce based on bad news or a serious subject. No one would be mirroring what was said by responding, "I hear what you are saying" or "You must have had a bad day." Yet, in a way, everyone would feel that there had been an opportunity to listen, as well as speak.

Just like the Mad Hatter, Time would be a main character in the structure of our table-talk, even though he was not a visible guest. After a long day at work or at school, or at school that was also work, our family spends not only quality time, but also a quantity of time. There is a constant to sitting down together and eating a meal. Around a table we have to look each other in the eye; we can see who is enthusiastic and who is moody; we can sense frazzled nerves or attempts to duck a question. There is no place to hide when you are spending time at the family table.

Parents who work long hours and arrive late at night at home may not have time to prepare or eat a leisurely family dinner; "Grab something to eat, take a shower, prepare your lunch for tomorrow and into bed" they may say. Often parents tell me that they do not have time to give to their children. Days and weeks may go by without peeking into backpacks, bedrooms or lockers. Some parents expect caregivers at afterschool or before school programs to supervise their childrens’ homework assignments and long-term projects. Parents write, "Please excuse my daughter/son from their assignment because he/she was at their father/mother/grandmother’s house and didn’t have time to do their work there.

By junior high or high school parents may want to talk to their children, but their children may neither have the interest or time to respond to questions that they may now see as intrusive. When adolescence kicks-in anticipated behaviors, such as isolating, irritability and/or moodiness may serve as a camouflage for depression. Parents may view this age as a time to be less involved in the school, and parent organizations; they may loose touch or never establish connections with their children’s friends’ parents. In reality, this time is when parents should increase their level of awareness and have their ear even closer to the ground.

Who has time to listen to a child in addition to a parent? A classroom teacher in the lower elementary grade now has 20 students; while these teachers have fewer students in their class than in prior years, they may or may not make time to build in listening to their students into the day’s activities. As teachers become more overloaded by mandates to meet tougher standards on standardized tests and be held more accountable for chalking up improved class performance points, listening to a child may be given lower priority.

Teachers in grade 3 and above may have 30 or more students in a crowded classroom. Each student will have less time to approach a teacher for a quiet chat. Inadvertently, a potentially important message might be lost in the need to forge ahead and get through the day’s tasks. Barriers to using languages other than English may also build walls to keep a student encased in silence. Healthy Start counselors, specialists, coaches and other concerned adults may be the key to unlock a child’s world.

Teachers in the middle and high schools may have up to 5 or more periods with over 30 students in each period; with each additional student over 150, the odds are lessened that the individual will have an opportunity to speak and be listened to by the instructor. Memorizing student names becomes a daunting task, nonetheless keeping their life situations and needs straight. There are probably two counselors at each school of over 1,600 students; that ratio means only 800, or so, students per counselor, plenty of time to chat with kids about their future!

Although guidelines for staffing schools call for approximately one school nurse to 500 students, often one school nurse and a few part-time assistants may be responsible for listening to and attending to several thousand students. Assistance from a Health Center,screenings by the Lion’s and Optimist Clubs, specially funded grants and local colleges that train counselors and medical staff, increase the possibility that a child will be heard. These services may also assure that a child will be able to hear,, or see or have teeth that are not falling out from decay.

In a recent article reviewing "Playing Their Part," a study done by Public Agenda, parents and teachers were asked what was "most important for parents to do in the partnership between parents and school." 83% of parents and 53% of teachers said check homework and encourage children to learn. 17% of parents and 43% of teachers said volunteer at school, fundraise, and help make decisions about staffing and curriculum. The survey went on to conclude that no amount of good teaching or parental help at school could make up for a parent who was not "taking care of business at home."

All adults involved with children focus a great deal of attention on what we should or shouldn’t say or teach. The time has come to listen to the toddler, youth, adolescent, young adult and to our fellow caregivers. "Taking care of business" begins with listening. The more adults who are involved in a child’s life and can not only listen to words, but read between spoken and written words, the better.

An investment in both the quality and quantity of time we spend listening to children of all ages is equally as important, if not more important than gun control, rating or censoring media/music input, and increasing campus security. After all, communication was occurring while Alice was listening to the Hatter, Hare and Dormouse; it was only when Alice stopped listening and gave up on remaining at the table that the violence began and the most harmless creature in Wonderland was stuffed into the teapot.