Today, I came across a poster that a preschool teacher had posted that had a child sitting with his legs crossed and the words "Good Listening" written across the top of the poster. There were then labels pointing to various parts of the child with what the teacher had determined to be traits necessary for "good listening". An arrow towards the eyes with the words "eyes forward", an arrow toward the ears with the words "ears open", an arrow towards the hands with the words "hands in lap", an arrow towards the mouth with the words "mouth closed", and an arrow towards the legs with the words "sitting criss-cross applesauce". Not only do I find these types of posters quite disrespectful to children and classroom communities and in stark disregard to child development principles, but this particular poster is also an inaccurate representation of quality active listening; which is what we should be teaching children to engage in.
Active listening does not require a child to be sitting in a particular position, or even to be sitting at all. The position of a child's body in no way influences whether or not they are engaged in a lesson or conversation. Consider this, when you participate in a workshop or a meeting adults are sitting in many different positions. Some are sitting cross legged, some with both their feet flat on the floor, some with a leg tucked under their bottom, some leaning against the wall while standing, and some pacing in the back of the room. Different people are comfortable in different positions and it's expected to accommodate these positions so that everyone is comfortable and able to participate. The same needs to hold true for children. So long as a child is not interfering with another child's comfort, there is no reason they should be required to sit in a prescribed manner. In fact, by requiring them to sit a certain way, we force them to spend more effort and thought worrying about how they are sitting rather than what is being said.
Active listening also does not require a child to keep their hands in their laps. Again, it comes down to an issue of comfort and personal choice. Who are we to tell anybody, including children, how they should hold their body. If the intent behind this is to prevent children from harming others, then be explicit about that. Talk with the children in your care and discuss boundaries and a person's right to feel comfortable and safe and as a result we need to be careful of the way and when we touch people. By forcing children to sit in group times with their hands in their lap, we are again forcing them to focus more effort and thought on where their hands are than engaging in a conversation.
By requiring children to keep eyes "up front" we are making the assumption that all children are visual learners and need to be facing the teacher or a particular manipulative at all times. Rather than insist that children are only looking at the front (I take this to generally mean the teacher in the cases where these posters are present), teach the children how to focus attention so that they can learn how to look at a person who is talking to them or at an item that is of importance for a particular moment in time.
It's also a misinterpretation of active listening to require children to have their mouths closed. A large part of active listening is asking questions and responding to what the other person said. How are children going to learn to listen and then respond in a relevant and respectful manner if we insist that they just quietly sit there? Instead, we need to model and prompt them in engaging in a back and forth dialogue that creates the skills of critical thinking and collaboration.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is what we are teaching the children. If the goal is to teach children how to be active listeners who know how to question, debate, and respond to conversations then we need to teach them the skills to do so. And these skills are not what is taught when we require children to sit like quiet statues.