I have been thinking about this a lot this week – mainly as a result of being in a school that was pretty quiet, the class I was teaching lovely, engaged and managing their noise levels in a manner that rarely needed me to ask for quiet to return.
I initially considered my attitude to silence (and expanded it out to teachers as a whole and the wider world beyond) a couple of years ago, following a conversation with my brother. We were talking about his eldest son. He was telling me about some challenges my nephew was having in school – he was getting bored due to a lack of challenge and being overly talkative, so his response was being made to sit in silence for a period of time, which my brother was unhappy about and was frustrated that a child had been made to sit in silence, asking the question who wants to sit in silence, especially a child. I considered this after the conversation – as I meditate every morning I choose to sit in silence for up to 20 minutes at a time and find it incredibly valuable. This then got me reflecting on my time in as a teacher and how I had employed similar behaviour management techniques – using silence as a consequence (mainly as a punishment) for a class that was struggling to manage their conversation’s and general noise.
At this point two things struck me:
- Silence should not be used as a punishment – the association making it negative and teaching children that silence is a bad thing, that is only to engage with as a control and not something that is there to suppress. I realised that this was similar to how historically some teachers would give lines for children to write – which always struck me as incredibly shortsighted as this would only connect punishment with writing – and for those children who already found writing a challenge this not an association that was either helpful or healthy
- Why aren’t people more comfortable with silence – why isn’t silence used in a supportive reflective fashion on a more regular basis?
Part of the challenge of meeting the second point is creating a safe enough space for people to want or feel able to sit in silence. I find it a non negotiable for me every day. It’s pretty much one of the first things I do, sit down, close my eyes and listen to my surroundings. Almost a shower for my mind. Sometimes I find this really easy, sometimes really hard (busy, busy mind drifting away). What I soon realised is just how much noise we are surrounded by (I had never appreciated how noisy electricity is). More importantly being able to sit, silently, has allowed me space to just be, without pressure or expectation. Without this practice in the mornings I feel slightly less anchored, slightly more rushed. I may go the odd day without sitting in silence, but I can’t remember going more than one day in the last 4 years. By stopping and letting myself be in silence, my mind is given space to move / flow / shift. Now that might not always be comfortable, but that is the point.
Which then makes me think about how to change the approach to using silence as punishment in schools, creating that negative and unwelcome association in children. Part of this I believe, comes down to language and presentation. I know that in the moment, in a noisy class, that feels hard to manage, where the children are pushing boundaries and relationships within the group are frayed, it is hard to think how to regain a sense of calm and safety for the children (and the teacher). I’ve had that experience on many occasions – at the beginning of my career I definitely jumped to a raised voice and insistence on silence, supported by the threat of a loss of children’s breaktime or speaking to parents at the end of the day. On reflection and with greater experience I now see these situations as a chance for growth (which ironically is probably why I have less of them as I’m calmer in class and not in a permanent role). I’ve realised that this is about redirecting the energy, the frustration, the need to be heard by the children – one way I’ve used is through the Ha or Power Up breath. directing their attention and energy through breath has worked. Following this with something calmer with a physical prompt (squeezing fingers) and a sound, whilst slowing the breath down to take a class where thy can then sit in silence, to listen to their surroundings in a way that calms then – as opposed to forcing this in a hard stop.
By shifting the emphasis on how silence is used, this shifts the relationship and associations. Another way to help children get past the discomfort of silence is to have this as something to do at the beginning of each day. Before any learning, sit and be, a tool to set you up for the day and let a short period of time pass where everyone sits in contemplation. Doing this at the start of the day, aside from anything either good or bad, normalises and allows children to build a less judgemental, more honest relationship with silence. It helps them learn that it is OK to sit with yourself in quiet and let your mind wander. It gives children the chance to experience silence in a positive way – as most classes begin in a very calm fashion. It then helps to use this calming association a transition after break or lunch. You come in, sit down and are silent for a short time period to shift from play time to class time. When sat still those physical cues can be reinforced, the pressing of fingers, hands on the stomach or chest. The breath can be focused on. The ability to self soothe and self manage becomes easier – maybe pushing back that feeling / emotion that threatens to boil over, maybe not. However the act of being able to sit in silence and just be gives an opportunity that currently doesn’t exist for many.
Using silence in this way then allows children to learn a tool that they can take through life. When they are moving from one space (mentally or physically) to another, by sitting with themselves in silence, they can make that shift. This skill is something that is incredibly valuable and something that I really wish I had been taught when at school. For adults about to present, face a difficult decision, make a challenging call, having a strategy that gives space and time to settle can be invaluable.
Silence is incredibly powerful – I remember hearing someone say that when you negotiate just remain quiet, people are uncomfortable with silence and have a tendency to fill it with noise. I believe that the more comfortable we all are with silence, the more productive and healthy we can be.