What software developers can learn about client engagement from preschools

5 min readPublished June 20, 2018Updated November 03, 2019

This is the second post in a series about what software developers can learn from other disciplines that we often perceive as unrelated to our field.

  1. What software developers can learn about onboarding from the crochet community
  2. What software developers can learn about client engagement from preschools
  3. What software developers can learn about estimating from road construction
  4. What software developers can learn about consulting from hair salons

In college, I spent 2 1/2 years working with Jumpstart, a national early education organization working toward the day every child in America enters kindergarten prepared to succeed. Jumpstart provides language, literacy, and social-emotional programming for preschool children from under-resourced communities and promotes quality early learning for all children. Working with Jumpstart was my favorite part of my college experience.

During my time with Jumpstart, I learned a lot of techniques for communicating with 3, 4, and 5 year olds. As I’ve progressed in my career (and life), I’ve realized that these skills are not specific to preschool age children and are useful for productive communication in general. I see this especially within the realm of client engagement.

Identify feelings

Preschool age children often get frustrated and overwhelmed when they are experiencing strong emotions. They struggle to communicate what is happening. It’s important in these scenarios to describe the feelings you see and give them the words they need. If a child is screaming because another child took his toy, I’d say “I see that you are crying. It looks like you are angry with Oskar for taking the toy you were playing with. How are you feeling?” This opens up a conversation with the child who can now say they are angry and explain why.

During meetings, I often find it helpful to use this technique to gauge the temperature of the room and uncover any misalignment among the attendees. I try to say things like, “I see a lot of head nods. It seems that we all agree this is a good idea. What do you think?” Or “You’ve been quiet for a while. It looks like you may disagree. What are your thoughts?” In group settings, it can be difficult to talk about individual feelings. I find that by identifying the feelings I’m seeing and opening up the conversation to talk about those feelings, others will be more comfortable to share their thoughts with the group.

Summarize decisions

When mediating conflict among children, its important to let them offer solutions and learn how to resolve disagreements while guiding them through the process. One technique that I find to be really helpful is to summarize the decisions they made. It helps remind them what they said and reinforces the decision.

If two children are fighting over a ball, we talk through their feelings and acknowledge that they both want to play. When I ask what they could do so they could both have a chance to play with the ball, they might offer multiple solutions such as taking turns or playing a game together. If they decide to play a game together, reiterating that for them, “I see that you both decided to play soccer together. I think that’s a great idea, it sounds like a lot of fun,” is enough for them to acknowledge the decision and go start playing.

When having a conversation among multiple stakeholders, it can sometimes be difficult to track all of the decisions that were made and next steps that need to be taken. I find ending these conversations with a summary of decisions and action items (and timeline!) to be a great way to make sure everyone walks away with the same understanding and expectations. It also provides the opportunity to talk through misunderstandings if anyone disagrees with my summary. Maybe I misinterpreted a decision or missed an action item completely. An agreed upon summary of decisions and action items aligns everyone toward a common goal and keeps the project moving forward.

Realistic choices

Unlimited choice is not an option for preschool children. Preschoolers need to nap, eat their vegetables, and take baths in order to be healthy. If we let them have unlimited choice, they would choose to skip their naps until they're overtired and cranky, have macaroni and cheese for every meal, and leave that play-doh in their hair for days.

Instead of asking, “Are you ready for nap time?” we can ask, “It’s nap time, would you like your sleeping bag by the window or by the door?” Instead of, “What do you want to eat?” we can ask, “Would you like carrots or green beans with dinner tonight?” And instead of “Can you get in the bath tub?” we can ask “Would you like to get in the bath tub by yourself or would you like me to lift you in?”

In all of these instances, the preschooler is not presented an option to say no or make an unrealistic choice. They are provided with acceptable options to choose from.

During priority or scope discussions, I find this strategy to be really helpful for keeping the conversation productive. Open ended questions are suitable during the research phase of a project, but once a budget has been decided, there are real world constraints that we must work within. Instead of leading with ambiguous questions such as “What would you like us to do?” it is more useful to provide viable options to choose from. “Would you like to deprioritze Feature A so that we will have time for Feature B or would you prefer to extend the timeline and budget by 2 sprints so we can implement both?” Now the stakeholder can choose between these 2 options or provide an alternative solution for discussion. Opening with two realistic options facilitates the conversation, because now everyone in the room has a better understanding of what is and isn’t doable given the constraints.

When I decided to major in Computer Science, I didn’t realize how much my time working in a preschool classroom would prepare me for a career in software development. Empathetic, intentional communication is not only useful when talking to preschoolers, its helpful in every setting, with everybody. Bring it into your meetings for improved client engagement and shared expectations.

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