Serve and Return: Listen and Respond

Question: If a comment is made and there is no response, what happens? If a child wonders out loud, and there is no one available to offer an answer, will the child continue to wonder out loud? 

All natural human interaction involves an exchange: an exchange of emotion, information, or ideas. Interaction can happen in many different forms. It can happen between two people or many. For an interaction to become a conversation, each question, comment, or wondering needs to be heard and responded to. The response is received, processed, and answered again, in turn. Back and forth, serve and return…. You talk I listen, I talk you listen….

Good conversation is a pattern of listening and responding.  

Rhythm and Flow of Conversation

There is a rhythm to every conversation. Sometimes we’re excited and our conversations move fast; we are serving and returning like we’re in a championship tennis match at Wimbledon.  Our partner is right there with us, and we feed off of each other’s emotional energy.  At other times the words of our partner are so thought-provoking that we need to pause and think before we respond. Serve and return is the back and forth in a conversation, the easy flow of mutual engagement.

Each conversation has its own rhythm and should offer the opportunity to all partners for listening and talking. Part of being a good conversationalist includes the ability to go with the flow; like a jazz musician improvising in a song.  We must be a good listener and a good observer.  We must ask ourselves, “What are the tactile, visual and auditory cues that let me know when it’s my turn to talk?  How do these same cues allow me to know when it’s my turn to listen?”  

When we have a conversation, it is important that both partners are allowed to determine the pacing.  We need to be mindful of this when we engage an individual who is deafblind so they have power in setting the pace  of the conversation. For some children, this may require us to slow down quite a bit and to wait for the child to take a turn. Being actively engaged  allows us to be mindful of the pace of our conversational partner.

Conversational pacing is similar to rhythm, timing and dynamics in music, and there is a parallel, as we have seen above, between the interplay of musical instruments in a piece of music and the conversational interplay between listening and talking.  Much like a musical composition, each instrument may take the lead at times or may sit out a few bars, but each is an essential part of the musical piece as a whole.

Common Language 

Serve and return in a conversation can be verbal, formal, spoken or signed language, or some combination.  It can be a gesture or facial expression. For the person who has no vision or hearing, it can also be tactual. For our conversation to be successful, serve and return can only happen through a common language. The response (return) of our child’s serve should be in a language that we both understand. Therein lies the problem. Do we know how to converse in a language that is based largely in a tactual experience?

We may never be fully able to understand what the world is like for an individual whose primary way of experiencing and understanding the world is through touch. In the same way, the child who is deafblind cannot fully understand our experience in a world perceived through vision or hearing. How do we co-create a mutually understood language?


All children have topics!  For children who are congenitally deafblind, these topics start with their body. As their experience of the world expands beyond arm’s reach, their list of topics also expands. Teacher topics often focus on the schedule and planned lessons.  A child’s topic may be flicking their hands, jumping, or making popping sounds with their lips.  These are not traditional conversational topics, but they can be of greater interest to the child than the teacher’s topic. 

For some children there may also be an extreme interest in a single topic and an unwillingness to share leadership.  Sometimes this may be related to a neurological issue or simply to a lack of experiences. Frequently we simply do not understand what the topic is.

One of the responsibilities of a good conversationalist is to show interest in the other person’s topic and to acknowledge that they are listening. The people we find most interesting for who they are are often the same people most interested in who we are.  A parent once asked, “How do we teach a child to be curious?” We can’t teach something that is innate in all human beings, but we can foster curiosity about others and the larger world through conversation.

For partners to have equal voice in a conversation, each person’s topic will need to be considered and responded to.  There can also be an exchange of lead in a conversation that allows the topic to shift ownership from partner to partner while continuing the conversation’s serve and return.  As ownership of the topic changes, the serve and return should continue.

Ray and Chris Talk about Making Cookies

In this video you see Chris Montgomery and his student, Ray, having a conversation at his calendar box before they begin the activity of making cookies.

Sharing the Experience of the Guitar
Chris Montgomery shares the experience of his guitar and its music with his students.

The conversational exchange of information and emotion is essential for all humans. We need to be active as listeners in order to be engaged as conversationalists.

Something happens when we educators go off to teacher school. We learn about lesson plans and collecting measurable data. We learn that our “performance goals” for the children (human beings) we work with a need to have “measurable outcomes”. How else will we know if our students are making progress?  

We would surely never advocate  for a teacher to be unprepared, unorganized, or have no plan for their student’s learning. We must, however, ask ourselves: are we coming prepared to be the expert observer and the active listener? Are we prepared to follow the lead of the child? Can we share ownership of today’s topic? Is it possible to give ourselves permission to just be with this human being, from whom we have so much to learn, and hear what might be on their agenda?

Chris Montgomery


In our ideas on the education of severely sensorily impaired children, the development of attachment has become a more vital issue. We consider it the basis for learning. In the process of bonding, vision plays a dominant role, and can be clearly observed in attachment characteristics like smiling, stretching out the arms when a familiar person approaches, and eye contact. It is logical to assume that this process develops much more slowly in a completely deafblind child than in the child with residual vision.

Dr. Jan van Dijk

An Educational Curriculum for Deaf-Blind Multi-Handicapped Persons”, 1986

Did You Know?

Through the serve and return that is part of our natural human interaction process, we develop neural pathways that build our brain’s architecture. Starting in infancy, babies form connections with their caregivers through the response to their facial expressions, body movements, cries and coos. By responding we let our child know that their actions have an effect on the world apart from their body. Attachments are formed through this serve and return by the adult and child.   As we naturally begin to name things, we build a mutually understood formal language. This language may only exist between the person who is deafblind and their partner. To learn more about how humans build brain architecture watch Experiences Build Brain Architecture on the Center on the Developing Child – Harvard University website. 

Want to learn more?  Take a deeper dive!