Build Relationships With Small Talk


Photo by lovelornpoets

Intelligence may get students through school with high marks, but out there in the wild, a high-performing brain can only get one so far. We need to explicitly help our students learn to relate to those around them.

Judith Halsted, in Using Books to Meet the Social and Emotional Needs of Gifted Students writes:

as they grow, gifted children must… learn to build relationships with other people, many of whom do not share their abilities and interests

Let’s help our kids make these relationships. We’ll start with a student-friendly goal:

Learn to be friendly with others, even if they don’t share your abilities or interests.

Learn To Build Relationships

For anyone, starting a conversation with those outside a friend group is difficult, but add in our gifted kids’ tendency to over-think and their increased sensitivity, and they have even more of a challenge.

Socially Awkward Penguin

We can give them simple rules for beginning conversations with new people. In essence, we’re teaching kids to “small talk.”

Rule 1: Ask Questions About the Other Person

To set up a successful conversation, students should be outwardly focused, asking questions about the other person.

Rule 2: Begin With General Questions

Since the student may not know this person, initial questions should be general enough that anyone can answer:

  • What are you going to do this weekend?
  • What video games do you play?
  • What schools have you gone to?

These questions should be open-ended to encourage longer answers and get the discussion going.

  • “Did you see The Avengers?” is closed, since the person might say: “No.”
  • “What’s the last movie you saw?” is open, since the person will have an answer that leads to more questions.

Take five minutes to brainstorm opening questions with your students.

Rule 3: Get More Specific

As students start to understand the other person’s interests, they will be able to ask more specific questions. What’s great is that they don’t have to know anything about the topic to ask questions. So even if a partner loves cricket, Esperanto, or Japanese pop music, students simply ask about the topic.

  • Oh, I don’t know anything about cricket. How is it different from baseball?
  • Really? So do you have a favorite team?
  • Hmm. Do young people play? Is there a “little league” for cricket?

Rule 4: Avoid Controversy

Remind students of some “off-limits” topics that are controversial, personal, or otherwise uncomfortable:

  • religion
  • politics
  • finances

But sometimes, students might accidentally stumble on an uncomfortable topic. Perhaps someone’s family isn’t around or they had to leave their last school because of an embarrassing incident. Talk to kids about tactfully retreating and shifting to a less sensitive topic rather than giving up on the conversation.

Rule 5: Answer Questions With Complete Sentences

During the course of the conversation, the student will field some questions as well. When replying to others’ questions, avoid one-word answers. Tell kids to keep the conversation alive by giving a thoughtful, complete answer.

Practice answering in complete sentences.

Practice in Class!

As with any skill, we need to model these conversations and offer structured practice to help kids improve.

The modeling part is fun, since you get to ham it up! Call up a student who enjoys the spotlight and go through a mock conversation with them. Model how to ask general questions. Model the art of getting more specific. Show them how to retreat from a topic that was unintentionally awkward.

Brainstorm safe, general topics to ask about first with the whole class. Then set up parters and practice.

When Do I Do This!?

This is great way to differentiate instruction for “speaking and listening” skills during a language development period. Perhaps spend a week introducing the skills and practicing. Then come back to it once a week or so. This activity could be a good opener or closer for your day also.