63. Wait Time

When you ask a child a question, and you don’t seem to be getting an answer, it’s seems natural to deduce that the child doesn’t know the answer. Rather than prolong the agony, you quickly ask someone else, provide the answer yourself, or change the subject. Part of that reaction may be concern about the child’s self-esteem. Part of it may be vicarious anxiety. You
remember how hard it was for you when you didn’t know an answer, and you assume that this child is going through the same ordeal. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. There are also some who would have other, less gentle responses.
But there is another response teachers are using nowadays. A new kind of patience, based on recent findings about the way children learn. A child may take several seconds to process a question, and several more to retrieve the words necessary to answer. The final product may be as good as, or better than someone else’s answer. We call it “wait time.” Like all discoveries about children’s learning, there are probably a few insightful people who knew it all along, but for most of us, life is a “Jeopardy” game, where the winner is the one who answers correctly before anyone else has time to think.
This pattern continues into adult life. There are times in anyone’s life when answers don’t pop out as quickly as they do at other times. Early childhood and old age are the two legendary such times, but there are other times when it takes a little longer to figure things out. And there are differing personal styles. Some people’s brains are crockpots, some are microwave ovens, and most are somewhere in between. But there are too many situations where the early bird catches the worm, flies off, and leaves the late bird scrounging around for leftovers (I hear Mr. Dunlap, my eleventh grade English teacher, telling me to stop mixing metaphors. He’s right. I’ll stop).
So when you ask a child, “What is seven times eight?” or “Do you have any homework?”, a delayed response may not indicate that the child doesn’t know, or is trying to get out of answering. Wait a while. At first, waiting can be hard. It’s not common practice, and it may not feel right at first. But it may be exactly what a child needs, and the result may pleasantly surprise you.

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