I Love Interruptions!By Abigail Flesch Connors
Interruptions can be annoying and frustrating for teachers of young children. But interruptions, whether relevant or irrelevant, can give us valuable feedback about the effectiveness of our teaching.
Imagine a meeting in a conference room. Fifteen or twenty employees are seated in rows, watching a colleague give a Power Point presentation.
“Now, as you can see – ” the presenter begins, but is quickly cut off by an onslaught of interruptions.
“Did you draw that yourself?”
“I can’t see the pictures!”
“Why are some pieces of the pie so small?”
“I’m squished! Gerald won’t move over!”
“I like apple pie!”
“What does ‘appropriations’ mean?”
“I’m going to Grandma’s house after work!”
Chaos, right? No one in their right mind would forge ahead with an
informational presentation in that kind of atmosphere. But that’s how
teachers of young children have to lead educational activities every
When I first started teaching young children, I wasn’t prepared for the
constant interruptions, and it drove me crazy! Trying to read a story,
teach a song, or even give a few simple directions was like plowing
through a dense and wild vocal jungle. Students interrupted me with
pestering questions, attention-getting complaints, and comments out of
left field (from a ballpark on Mars).
Over the years, though, I’ve learned to love interruptions – because
I’ve learned to understand them from a child’s point of view.
Typically, we grownups perceive interruptions in negative terms.
Interrupting is seen as rude, self-absorbed, and a waste of others’
time. But if we interpret young children’s interruptions in only these
terms, we’re missing opportunities to understand how children learn –
and how they don’t learn.
Interruptions fall into two categories, relevant and irrelevant. Relevant interruptions pertain to the task at hand, while irrelevant interruptions do not. But both can be valuable clues to how effectively we’re teaching.
When our students make relevant interruptions, they’re showing us they’re engaged in our lesson, they’re interested, they’re really thinking about it. These relevant interruptions come in three styles: questioning, predicting, and commenting. My younger students often interrupt with relevant questions. If I’m passing out musical
instruments and explaining an activity, a child may call out, “Are we all getting instruments?” That shows me he’s eager to play and learn. Or if I’m reading “The Three Bears,” someone might interrupt with a prediction such as “I bet the bears are going to be mad at Goldilocks!”
That’s a relevant interruption – it tells me the child is thinking
about the story and following along. While I’m showing the class a
xylophone and talking about how to play it, a child might comment “It
looks like a little piano. I wonder if it sounds like one.” That child
is showing interest and curiosity.
Even very relevant interruptions can be annoying when I have a “script”
in my head of what I want to say, a plan of how I want the lesson to
proceed. I have to adjust, address the interruption (possibly inviting
more interruptions) and sometimes take the lesson in a whole other
direction. For instance, I might be focused on teaching children how to
play a xylophone, but they might be more interested in the instrument’s
sound and want to spend time comparing that sound to those of other
When we feel irritated by relevant interruptions, we need to remind ourselves that this is what we’re aiming for – engaged and interested learners. That’s what education is about, after all, so we need to reframe our perceptions of these kinds of interruptions. Maybe we could think of them as “eruptions” – eruptions of learning. Instead of being irritated, we should be proud that our teaching is connecting with our students’ minds.
Irrelevant interruptions are also great clues, in the opposite way. There will always be children who crave attention, or are too focused on other things to pay attention to the current activity. At times, however, irrelevant interruptions like complaints (“Drew’s pushing me”), attention-getting (“Look at my new sneakers!”) and just plain out-of-nowhere remarks (“My Grandma got a new dog!”) become so intrusive that they impede teaching and learning. When I’m deluged by irrelevant interruptions when I’m trying to teach, this shows me that I’m doing just that – trying. I’m not teaching effectively if a majority of my students are interrupting me to tell me they’re thirsty, or they want to know why my hair is different today, or they’re going to their friend’s house after school. Then I know something’s wrong with the way I’m presenting the material, or with the material itself.
These irrelevant interruptions become part of a vicious cycle. Caused (at least partly) by ineffective teaching, they in turn lead to even more ineffective teaching, as we struggle to be heard and understood through the constant chatter.
So how do we break the cycle?
Here are some ideas to lessen the impact of irrelevant interruptions:
1. Think about the physical setup of your teaching environment.
If children are sitting in a circle, do they have enough room to sit
comfortably? Can everyone see the story or other materials? Sometimes
little adjustments in seating before you begin a lesson can greatly
reduce irrelevant interruptions.
2. Reconsider the appropriateness of the material you’re
presenting. Your story, game or activity may be appropriate for the age
of the children you’re teaching – but just as not all five-year-olds
are alike, not all groups of five-year-olds are alike. Irrelevant
interruptions may be telling you that the group is just not ready for
this material. Try simpler, shorter, less demanding stories and
activities, at least some of the time. When children feel more
confident about mastering the material, there are generally less
3. Pace yourself. Young children don’t say, “Excuse me, could
you go over that again?” or “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that last part.”
When they miss pieces of information, children are more likely to tune
out, focus on other things – and make irrelevant interruptions. I tend
to speak very quickly, so I’m constantly monitoring and adjusting the
pace of my speech in the classroom. If irrelevant interruptions are
accompanied by blank faces and vague, wandering eyes, I try to speak
more slowly, emphasize important words, and repeat important sentences
and directions to bring my students back on track.
4. Think about the cohesiveness of your group. If a child is too concerned with her own needs to participate in a group situation, it impedes her ability to learn and increases the probability that she will make irrelevant interruptions. Young children are still adjusting to the idea of learning and playing together as a group. The more you can do to foster a sense of cohesiveness, the better. Use words like “we,” “all,” “together,” and “group.” Avoid singling children out: instead of “Tyler, don’t push,” try, “Let’s all keep our hands in our laps.” Compliment students as a group, i.e., “We came up with a lot of great ideas together!”
I hope you’ll learn to love interruptions. Relevant interruptions show us our students are involved and focused – they give us exciting evidence that we’re doing our job well. Irrelevant interruptions are clues to how we need to improve. Either way, interruptions are much more than a nuisance. In fact, they serve as invaluable, immediate feedback on the effectiveness of our teaching. So what’s not to love?