Communication is key for connection with our little ones. The connection begins when they hear our voices before they are even born! Communication is a surprisingly complex skill, made up of lots of subskills which work together simultaneously for successful interaction. These building bricks of communication include everything from attention and listening to reading social cues and speaking.
When encouraging the development of communication skills in little ones, it can be helpful to break things down into smaller steps. We can then help them to master each small skill and this supports communication overall.
It is very difficult to listen in a busy, noisy environment. We find this as adults, even though we’ve had lots of practise! Young children are far more easily distracted and are often only able to focus on one thing at a time. What can you do to reduce distractions in the environment for times when you really want a child to listen? Turn off the TV/ radio, go to a quiet room or make sure your child has their back to anything which might obviously distract them.
Get their attention first
As young children have single channelled attention, we need to help them to shift their attention to what they need to listen to. Trying to talk from across the room is often unsuccessful. Instead, approach your child and go down to their level, encouraging them to give you eye contact. Once you know you have your child’s attention then they are ready to listen to you. When a child is looking at your face, they are learning so much; not just from what you are saying but also from your facial expression, the way your mouth moves to make sounds and the gestures you use.
Reduce your language
When talking with young children make sure to keep your language simple and in short bursts. This gives the child the best opportunity to listen to what you are saying and to process the information. Be particularly mindful of this when giving instructions. Give information in the order it is needed and avoid tricky concept words like before/ after / until.
Just a little bit more
We have all heard that we need to model language for children to help them to learn to talk. But we tend to get carried away and give them way too much language to be able to imitate. If your child is pointing at objects or people, help them by labelling ‘It’s a car’ or ‘that’s Daddy’. They aren’t quite ready for a full narrative on the details. Later on, when a child is putting a couple of words together in short phrases (‘Mummy, car!’) we can then help them to extend their sentences (‘Yes, Mummy is driving the car’). By giving a little challenge, our children are often able to rise to that challenge and succeed. When we set the bar too high, it is overwhelming. Little by little, we support communication skills and before we know it our kids are coming on leaps and bounds.
Practice makes perfect
As with any skill, speaking and listening need lots of practice to be mastered. We need to give children lots of opportunities to practice communicating. Keep practise fun. Young children learn best through play and real-life experiences. Play with toys together, try out some listening games, get outside, share picture books (with all the silly voices and noises) and explore musical instruments. Getting kids engaged and interested in learning language is the key. No need to over formalise things (steer clear of the flashcards!). Start simple and build up to more difficult games as your child’s ability to listen improves. Also, remember to start somewhere quiet and distraction-free. Once your child is able to listen in a quiet place you can build the difficulty by practising in busier places.
Sarah Billingham is a specialist teacher and one half of Confident Kids, a unique Early Years service. They equip parents and practitioners with expert knowledge and the practical tools they need to offer their little people the very best support they can. You can find Confident Kids on Facebook to get their weekly tips and signing videos.