All elementary-school-age children need guidance to improve communication skills. Some children require more assistance than others. How do you determine if your child needs extra help developing conversations with peers? Ask yourself these questions:
- Does your child look the person she is speaking to in the eyes?
- Does your child actively listen when spoken to?
- Does your child allow others a chance to speak and be heard?
- Does your child speak in a calm, pleasant tone of voice?
- Does your child show interest in another person by asking questions?
- Does your child keep his body still when speaking with another person?
- Does your child initiate conversations with others regularly?
- Does your child talk on the phone with other children?
- Are your child’s statements and questions in a conversation relevant to the topic at hand?
- Does your child use appropriate body language with others?
- When others are talking, does your child make supportive statements such as “That’s great!” or “Wow!” or “Yeah!” or “Me too!”?
If you answered each of these questions with a resounding “Yes!” then you may want to just skim this article. Continue to highlight conversation in your everyday interactions and support your child’s ability to empathize appropriately with others.
If you answered some of these questions with “Not really” or “No,” you might want to try some of the tips and exercises listed below.
Improve Parent/Child Communication First: I can’t overstate the value of having discussions with your child to help model conversation skills. I recall working with Mrs. Jones, a mom who was quite concerned about her daughter’s trouble conversing with friends. She said Ashley appeared distracted and preoccupied when talking with others and continually changed the subject back to herself. Was Mrs. Jones surprised when she realized that she herself struggled to listen to Ashley! She found herself often tuning her daughter out and becoming distracted by household matters. She was pleased to see that when she became a better listener, Ashley followed suit and became a better communicator with her friends.
Make Sure Your Child Knows You Are Listening: Schedule 15 minutes a day to sit down with your child and “schmooze.” Look at your child when he is talking to you.
Ask Open-Ended Questions: Rather than asking a question that requires a “yes” or “no” response like, “Did you have a good day?” try asking questions that help your child expand upon the question. For instance, you might ask a question like, “Tell me what you did in PE today.” Or, “What is your coach helping you with in basketball?”
Listen Without Judgment: Avoid reactions like, “Why did you hit that boy on the playground?” Instead try, “Tell me about what happened on the playground today.”
Stay Focused and Interested: Talking about “lunch” or “PE” may seem boring or banal to you, but may be important to your child. Sometimes you learn the most fascinating pieces of information from your child when you least expect it.
Remember Details So You Can Follow Up: “So how did your art class go? I know you were working on a clown painting yesterday.”
Check In With Family Members at Dinnertime: Give family members a chance to share a little about their day, and allow others to listen actively and respond enthusiastically.
Use “I” Messages: For instance, “I feel frustrated when you don’t listen to my directions the first time.” This is a kinder, gentler way of saying, “You never listen to me.”
Reinforce Positive Communication Behavior: When you see your child engaging in good eye contact or active listening, be sure to praise it! For instance, “Boy, Charlie, I feel so good when you look at me when you are talking.” “You know, Jen, I really like it when you listen to me when I talk to you.”
Make Sure Your Child Is Looking at You When You Talk to Him: This will help your child develop good eye contact with others. Children have a lot of trouble seeing themselves the way others see them. They need your help recognizing how others see them and how their behavior affects others. Good eye contact is the backbone of good communication.
Remind Your Child Gently to Use His Indoor Voice: Your child may be unaware of how he sounds to others. You are his monitor and can help him hear himself. You can even reward him for every hour his voice level remains low.
Tips for Helping Children Communicate Better
Use a Code Word to Remind Your Child to Use Good Communication Skills: You might use a word like “EYES!” or “LOOK!” to remind your child to look in the eyes of another person. This code word acts as a prompt without embarrassing your child unnecessarily.
Play the “Freeze” Game: At the dinner table, say “Freeze” and look to see who is paying attention to the conversation. Praise family members who are following the conversation.
Reward Your Child for Listening: Give him a star or sticker. You can tell if your child is listening because he is:
- looking in the other person’s eyes
- keeping his body still
- allowing the other person to speak without interruption
- making sounds that express interest like “Oh,” “Uh huh,” “Yeah.”
- asking questions when there is a pause
- making statements when there is a pause
Role Play With Your Children: Children love to play act. See how long they can keep a conversation going playing the part of someone else.
Reinforce Your Child’s Patience When She Waits Before Speaking: Immediately pay attention to your child when she asks a question following a pause. If you ignore her when she has successfully waited, she may not recognize that she has done something right. On the other hand, ignore your child when she does not wait for the pause.
Tape Your Child in Action: Play it back and let your child hear himself through other’s ears. He might be surprised at how he sounds.
Use a Hoola Hoop: Ask your child to stand in the center of a hoola hoop, or draw a three-foot circle on the ground around her. Let her experience how far away she should be from others when talking to them.
Develop a List of Do’s and Don’ts: Review the list periodically, and praise the skills you see your child “do.” Add your own “do’s” to this list:
- wait for a pause to speak
- ask appropriate questions
- use a clear, pleasant tone of voice
- look others straight in the eyes
- don’t hog the show
- don’t change the subject to talk about yourself
- don’t interrupt
Communication Games and Exercises
TV Talk Show Host: Allow your child to interview you and to be interviewed.
The host of the show has three goals:
- Help make your guest feel more comfortable through active listening
- Ask questions of your guest that show interest
- Share information about yourself that relates to your guest’s topics
The guest has three goals:
- Answer the host’s questions politely
- Stay focused and on the topic
- Use active listening skills
A Communication Ledger: Develop a weekly conversation journal which tracks and reinforces positive interaction. You can reward your child with stickers, points or stars to be traded in for privileges.
As adults, we recognize the importance of strong communication and conversation skills. It is critical that care and direction be taken during the formative years to develop and reinforce these abilities. Without these in place, development of more complex social skills like conflict resolution skills is, at best, difficult. Take time and effort to work with your child to give him the tools he needs to grow in a positive direction.
Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGP