Thursday, February 25, 2010

Communicating with Children

This article from the University of Missiouri was so wonderful I just had to post it.

Communicating Effectively with Children
by Sara Gable, State Extension Specialist, Human Development

Why take the time to communicate?

Children base their views of themselves and the world on their daily experiences. One of the most important experiences adults can provide for children is to talk with and listen to them. Through these daily interactions, children and adults can develop relationships that help children to learn about themselves and the world. Adults who care for children have a responsibility to create and maintain positive and healthy relationships with them. One of the most practical and mutually rewarding ways to achieve this goal is through positive communication.

Research suggests that the best parent-child relationships are characterized by lots of positive communication and interaction. Content parents and children communicate on a regular basis about many different things. They don't communicate only when there is a conflict. The researchers believe that when adults stay in touch with children through attention and conversation, children may be less likely to act out or behave in ways that create conflict or require discipline.

Effective communication with children requires communication styles and behavior appropriate to the age of the child. Understanding how children of different ages communicate and what they like to talk about is crucial for rewarding interaction with them. Adults must communicate in a way that relates to the age and interests of the child.

Communicating with children of different ages

Infants: Birth to 12 months

Infants communicate with their coos, gurgles, and grunts, facial expressions, cries, body movements like cuddling or back arching, eye movements such as looking towards and looking away and arm and leg movements.

Encourage infant communication:
  1. Quickly respond to infant communication (e.g., comfort a crying baby; smile at a smiling infant; relax if a baby turns her head to the side)
  2. Provide meaning to infants' communicative efforts (e.g., "You are crying, I know it is time for your bottle;" "You are smiling, you like it when I tickle your feet!")  
  3. Use a sing-song, high-pitched tone of voice, exaggerated facial expressions and wide-opened eyes when interacting with young infants. These types of behavior capture infants' attention and help them to keep focused on interacting.
  4. Make the most of the times when you and an infant are facing each other (e.g., during diaper changes, feedings, mealtimes) and talk, sing or gently tickle the infant. Infants are fascinated by adult faces and love to look at them when they are close.
  5. Pay attention to an infant's style of expressing emotions, preferred level of activity and tendency to be social. Some infants are quiet and observant and prefer infrequent adult interaction. Other infants are emotional, active and seek continuous adult attention and interaction. Recognizing the unique personality of each infant will make effective communication easier.

Toddlers: 12 to 36 months

Toddlers communicate with a combination of gestures and grunts, one word sentences, two word sentences, positive and negative emotional expressions and body movements.

Encourage toddler communication:


  1. Respond quickly and predictably to toddlers' communicative efforts (e.g., "You are pointing at the fridge, is it time for some juice?" "Bah-bah, that means you want your blanket, doesn't it?")
  2. Expand on toddlers' one and two word communications and build sentences around their words (e.g., "Hot, that's right, the pizza is hot." "Blue, your pants are blue with white stripes, aren't they?" "Do again? Okay, I'll push you some more on the swing.")
  3. Keep a word diary where you record toddlers' new words. The diary can be shared with other adults and the words can be used in conversation.
  4. Give toddlers one direction at a time and provide warnings before transitions (e.g., "We're going to leave for grandma's house in five minutes." Five minutes pass. "Okay, time to get ready, go get your coat from the bedroom." "Oh good, you got your coat, I'll help you put it on.")
  5. Label toddlers' emotions (e.g., "When you fall and get hurt, you feel sad." "Playing with your cousin Mary makes you happy!")
  6. Make the most of daily routines and talk toddlers through routines in the sequence in which they happen (e.g., "First we put warm water in the bathtub... then you take off your clothes and get in! Time to get the washrag soapy and clean you up... first I'll wash your little toes...")
  7. During play with toddlers, follow their lead and let them create the play. Describe for toddlers what they are doing during play and let them have control (e.g., "Oh, you are driving the car up the sofa, now it is falling to the floor! Here comes the truck to take the car to the garage.")
  8. When telling older toddlers what you want, provide an explanation and tell the toddler WHY you want something to happen (e.g., "Janey, I told you to please pick up your blocks and put them away. I don't want anyone tripping and falling over them.")

Preschoolers: 3 to 6 years

Preschoolers begin to talk in full sentences that are grammatically correct. Young preschoolers may struggle with telling stories in the correct order, but by age 6, sequencing the events of a story comes much more easily.

Preschoolers like to talk about their past experiences. They experiment with pretend and fantasy play; sometimes preschoolers talk about imaginary experiences.


Children of this age begin to recognize the connection between the spoken word and the written word. They often recognize traffic signs (e.g., stop) and restaurant signs (e.g., McDonald's) without being told what they literally say.


Preschoolers often talk to themselves when playing and working on tasks such as puzzles or art activities.

Encourage preschoolers' communication:
  1. Ask preschoolers questions about past events; probe for details and provide new words to enhance description of experiences (e.g., "Tell me who you played with at child care today? What did you do together?")
  2. Encourage preschoolers to talk about their feelings, both positive and negative, and discuss the possible causes for the emotions.
  3. Create opportunities for preschoolers to engage in fantasy and pretend play, either alone or with friends (e.g., pretend baby bathing, pretend housekeeping, pretend astronaut play)
  4. Provide opportunities for preschoolers to experience the connection between the spoken word and the written word (e.g., label familiar parts of the physical environment; have children tell you stories and write them down; allow children to 'write' their own stories or thank you notes; have children collect items from the environment which include words that they can read, such as toothpaste tubes or cereal boxes)
  5. When preschoolers are talking to themselves, let them be. Self-talk helps preschoolers focus on what they are doing.

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