Tips for talking with children
Engaging children in conversation is essential for optimal language and social-emotional development. It’s important to remember that conversation is two-way. Here are suggestions for improving that interaction.
Talking with babies
Hold, hug, and touch. With infants, much conversation is physical. Holding, caressing, patting, rocking and similar actions communicate safety and comfort.
Respond quickly to crying. In the first weeks of life, crying is the only way babies can communicate. When you respond with soothing words and touch, you build trust. Letting babies cry it out generates despair and anguish, and it can damage the developing brain. (For more information on the danger of the cry-it-out method, see Ask Dr. Sears, “Science Says: Excessive Crying Could be Harmful,” www.askdrsears.com/topics/health-concerns/fussy-baby/science-says-excessive-crying-could-be-harmful.)
Respond to coos and babbles. By 3 or 4 months, babies learn that their noises can get responses from people. They won’t understand your words but they will begin to gain meaning from your smiles, soft voice tone, and caring gestures.
Sing and play. Sing lullabies, chant nursery rhymes, and do finger plays, preferably while holding the baby on your lap. Pause occasionally to allow a response.
Elaborate early talking attempts. As toddlers begin talking, add words to increase vocabulary. When Melanie points to her cup, for example, you might say, “You want more milk? I’ll get you some.”
Talking with preschoolers
Focus your attention on the child. As teachers and caregivers, we are often multitasking—scanning the room for mishaps, anticipating a conference with parents, and wondering when lunch will be ready, for example. Effective conversation requires clearing the mind of distractions and focusing attention on the child. If you’re too occupied, set a time to talk. “I need a minute to get the box from the closet, and we can talk then.”
Position yourself at the child’s eye level. Having to look up at you can be intimidating. Sitting or kneeling so that your eyes are level with the child’s can help both of you feel engaged and connected. If the child looks away, don’t force it. Be aware that some cultures discourage eye contact and some children cannot maintain eye contact.
Listen. Avoid interrupting the child or thinking ahead to what you will say. Listen to gestures as well as words. What is the child doing with hands and body? If Joey is fidgeting or twisting, you may need to grasp his hands gently and wait for him to speak.
Use appropriate facial expressions and gestures. Smiling can allay shyness and fear and show that you are friendly and approachable. Raised quizzical eyebrows can indicate that you are open to questions. A hand clap and “Wow!” may express joy and surprise. Nodding indicates approval.
Speak simply. Use one- or two-syllable words and short sentences. Children have limited vocabulary and short attention spans. Offer one thought or opinion at a time.
Ask questions. Sometimes children need to be stimulated into observing and thinking. “Where is the sun?” you might ask on a rainy day. “What do you think will happen if we stack another block on the tower?” “How do you feel about playing the baby in the home center?”
Repeat what the child says. Sometimes it’s helpful to say what you think the child said to avoid misunderstanding or to affirm that the child’s thoughts and feelings are important. “You’re afraid of the spider on the window sill.” “You really don’t want to nap today.” “You’re excited about your dad coming home.”
Accept the child’s feelings. Avoid belittling (“It’s not that bad”), criticizing (“You didn’t do that right”), or telling a child how to feel (“You should be ashamed”). Instead offer empathy and support. “I can see how you feel that way.”
For more tips on talking with children, see “Talking with kids,” www.pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids/.