When silence is golden


In part two of her series exploring how communication skills link to wellbeing, Paula Brown challenges stereotypical notions to do with the extrovert and weighs the cognitive and emotional benefits of silence.

Practitioners can find time and space for children to enjoy being quiet
Practitioners can find time and space for children to enjoy being quiet

‘Never miss a good chance to shut up.’

Will Rogers

The irony of a chatty extrovert reflecting on the use of silence with the inherently noisy group that is children is not lost on me. Nonetheless, as part of my own professional journey I have been reflecting on its value. Silence can show defiance or respect or be used to punish. Silence is used as part of sacred and spiritual rituals and we often commemorate tragedy through shared silence. The right to silence is even enshrined in law in criminal proceedings and protection against noise is a citizen's right.

Radio silence

Silence signifies the absence of noise. Noise itself can be detrimental to health. The World Health Organization estimates that 125 million Europeans experience daily levels greater than 55 decibels (Fritschi, 2011). Sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear and noise triggers the stress hormone cortisol, historically alerting us to predators and threats. Noise affects physical and mental health and is linked with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, nerve damage, sleep deprivation, hypertension, depression and cognitive performance impairment in schoolchildren (Basner et al, 2014).

Conversely, silence improves memory; two hours of silence creates new cells in the hippocampus region, a brain centre linked with emotions, learning and memory (Kirste et al, 2013). Even two minutes of silence is more deeply relaxing than soft music due to beneficial changes to blood pressure and circulation in the brain (Bernardi, 2005).

The majority of our communication is non-verbal, made up of facial expressions, eye contact, gestures and use of space. As I discovered during a recent day-long sponsored silence, much can be conveyed, with surprising nuance, in silence. However, language and thought are intricately linked so, despite the value of silence, developing spoken language skills is fundamental.

Silence and culture

Silence is linked with social relations but is subjective and varies between cultures and personalities. People have different noise thresholds, though generally unpredictable human sources irritate people more than predictable impersonal ones.

Some East Asian cultures tend to favour introvert traits such as quiet thoughtfulness while preference for noise and extroversion is more common in the UK and US. Silence can involve turn-taking, signify embarrassment, disagreement or confusion. It can indicate uncertainty of response, avoidance, ‘saving face’ or deliberately inducing discomfort.

Cognitive benefits of silence

‘Wise men speak because they have something to say, fools because they have to say something.’

Plato

Fundamentally, silence helps children and adults to process thoughts. Generally, we focus better in quieter environments; our brains are simply better able to restore their finite cognitive resources. The ‘default mode network’ of the brain is activated when we daydream, meditate or let our minds wander (Moran et al, 2013). Even when resting the brain is perpetually active and the default mode allows us to encode data correctly.

Fundamentally, silence helps children and adults to process thoughts. Generally, we focus better in quieter environments; our brains are simply better able to restore their finite cognitive resources.

Silence is crucial for the mind to register information from its surroundings; thus it is inactivity, generally in silence, that stimulates brain activity most.

Reflective silence helps assimilate new ideas. Likewise sleep, particularly non-REM sleep memory, helps learning and memory. In storytelling silence and pacing help to build drama but silence can also signal the end of a conversation or episode.

Therapeutic silence

‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’

Epictetus

John Francis was an ordinary man who woke up one morning and decided to stop speaking, a vow he kept for 17 years. He was astonished at the benefits this brought in improving his listening and attunement to others. Therapists, like journalists, understand this and use refrain from speech as a technique to encourage the speaker to pour forth.

Currently, research on the benefits of meditation abounds. Silence allows us to be present, to ruminate and be intentional (Claxton, 1999). Florence Nightingale denigrated noise as a cruel absence of care, so is silence care? Sitting in silence with a distressed child can help us resist the urge to try to fix things rather than attune and empathise.

Extraversion/introversion

Cain (2013) describes introverts as those who recharge their batteries by being alone. They observe, listen, think before speaking and are often serious. Conversely, extroverts are talkative and put themselves ‘out there’. This may affect our careers, how we talk, exercise and sleep. These personality extremes can be seen everywhere.

Up to a half of us are introverts and often try to mimic extroverts to fit into Western society, which tends to rate talkative people as more attractive, intelligent and interesting than introverts (Cain, 2013). Far removed from agricultural days when people worked alongside family and friends, modern Western culture requires us to go out, meet strangers, ‘sell’ ourselves in job interviews and business deals. This requires extrovert qualities such as charm and eloquence.

Cain warns us to give introverts permission to be themselves. She cites that introverts often gain better grades yet teachers prize extroverts. Darwin, along with many other introvert scientist and inventors attest to the creative power of introverts. Interestingly, we tend to get more introverted with time.

However, there are few studies related to ‘quiet’ teaching and nowadays there is much emphasis placed on collaborative learning, boisterous ‘golden time’, and the solicitation of quick rather than insightful answers. Even Development Matters (DfE, 2012) has hundreds of mentions of the words ‘say’, ‘words’, ‘groups’, ‘friends’, ‘others’, ‘conversation’, ‘voice’, ‘discuss’, ‘react to’ and so on with fewer mentions of words such as ‘listen’. Interestingly, the Characteristics of Effective Learning are less verbal and more oriented to the child's own goals.

Problems with silence

  • Invisible children: these are often the quiet, introverted or shy children who slip under the radar, who teachers typically cannot recall when asked to write down their class/cohort. Hold these children in mind by remembering their key events or recommending them a book.
  • Danger: Social animals, like humans, emit continuous sounds to maintain contact with the group, thus silence can be a sign of danger and therefore distressing. Additionally, any incongruence between verbal and non-verbal language can be perceived as threatening.
  • Compulsive Talking: Nearly five per cent of people are ‘talkaholics’ which can affect their social integration (McCroskey and Richmond, 1995).
  • Shyness: Shy children used to be considered psychologically maladjusted. Unlike introverts who get energy from being alone, shy children are often anxious and averse to judgement by others. It can help to model friendly behaviour, refrain from using the word ‘shy’, prep them on forthcoming social interactions, encourage them to observe others interacting and create quiet. Shy children might escape behind screens and therefore get less practice at socialising.
  • Selective mutism: According to the NHS (2016), selective mutism is an anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain situations. A freeze response induced by certain people or social situations is triggered, rendering the child unable to speak. Affecting about 1 in 140 young children, it is more common in girls and often starts between the ages of two and four. It should not be confused with post-traumatic stress where a child might suddenly stop communicating nor with autistic spectrum disorder (though silence and disordered speech may correlate). It can lead to low self-esteem so training and advice from speech and language services should be sought. Staying calm, praising efforts to join in, removing pressure to speak and responding warmly to any verbal offerings can help.
  • Abuse or trauma: If there are changes in a child, or silence indicates withdrawal, advice needs to be sought.

Ways to celebrate silence

‘He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.’

Elbert Hubbard

Development Matters (DfE, 2012) encourages us to observe infants quieten to the sound of speech, to provide restful places and to encourage children to sit quietly when appropriate. Additionally it can help to:

  • Hold back: Teachers ask up to two questions every minute but many are procedural or lower-order questions and weaker students are given less time to respond (Hastings, 2003). Increasing the wait time after asking questions increases critical thinking. If this is hard, then count to ten to give a child time to answer and use commenting rather than questions.

  • Music: Pauses in music can be dramatic (the Hallelujah chorus in Handel's Messiah), humorous (Haydn's Quartet in E flat) or allow for contemplation (Beethoven's work). Jazz contains syncopation, which often surprises, and NASA Space Sounds translate the silent electromagnetic vibrations from the planets into sound.

  • Mindfulness and spirituality: Activities which promote meaning-seeking or heightened awareness often involve silence. Enjoy wilderness, sensory play, visualisations, mastery, simplicity, solitude, watch clouds, ruminate, explore savouring food and model being ‘present’. Provide time for immersion where children's intense concentration makes them transcend their surroundings.

  • Support introverts: Balance collaboration with autonomy, dens and cosy corners with open plan. The Mental Health Foundation (www.mentalhealth.org.uk) declares solitude as a skill of the mentally healthy. Slow down.

  • Support extroverts through silence: Use peer massage, group doodles, enjoying the wind and decorating wild spaces, exploring silence and different volumes.

  • Visit churches, mosques, temples and synagogues and places of beauty or celebrate in silence with Diwali lanterns.

  • Children learning language: Will often naturally go through a silent phase before they feel confident to use their first language. This can last up to a couple of months. The ‘Mosaic’ approach (Clark and Moss, 2017) is helpful as it uses children's photos, observations, drawings and maps to understand children's perspectives, often non-verbally.

  • Sustained shared thinking: Often involving dialogue and discussion, shared experience can also be non-verbal, involving body language, joint attention and deep thinking. For babies this might mean things like peek-a-boo or exploration of textures. Indeed, Wild (2011) states that ‘non-verbal signifiers of mutual attention are valuable indices of thinking’. Tuning in warmth, responsiveness, listening, knowing each child well and working alongside promote intersubjectivity, often silently.

  • Encourage memory: If the radio cuts out humans have a habit of continuing the song through memory retrieval. Capitalise on this by stopping and allowing children to finish a refrain.

  • Non-verbal stories: Use recycled materials to present a narrative without recognisable verbal language; showing a story rather than telling it (www.visiblethinking.ltd.uk/category/non-verbal-storytelling).

  • Team reflection: Use silence to allow contemplation before asking team members to agree to new measures or changes. Pose yourselves reflective questions about how much we talk and how noisy our settings are.

Lastly, know when not to be silent. Silence is a wonderful thing but remaining silent when there is abuse or injustice is not.

Conclusion

While young children are inherently noisy, silence supports their cognitive and emotional growth. Practitioners can find spaces and times for silence.

Key points

  • Noise is detrimental to health and silence beneficial
  • Noise tolerance is personal and affected by culture
  • Extroverts are more celebrated than their quieter, introvert counterparts in Western culture
  • There can be some issues when children's silence is concerning, such as abuse, selective mutism and trauma

Useful resources

  • Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton. Published by Walker Books. The power of the quiet, observant child
  • The Frog and Toad Collection by Arnold Lobel. Published by HarperCollins. Celebrating different and complementary characteristics
  • Quiet! by Paul Bright. Published by Little Tiger Press. Pa Lion must maintain quiet for baby tiger
  • Quiet Please, Owen McPhee! by Trudy Ludwig. Published by Random House. About how talking too much makes listening hard to do
  • Little Miss Shy by Roger Hargreaves. Published by Egmont
  • Times to be Noisy, Times to be Quiet by Steve Karagiannis. Published by CreateSpace

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