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Guiding Young Children in Verbal Communication

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Verbal communication is another important element of child guidance. The words we use as adults strongly influence the behaviors of young children. An excellent beginning for effective verbal communication is the ability of the adult to be a good listener. Active listening is a technique that helps the adult be more effective in the communication process (Reynolds, 2008). The teacher begins by being open and approachable and listens carefully to what the child is saying and doing. Then, in his own words, the teacher repeats back what he has heard the child say. “Damion, it sounds like you are mad at Ian because he took the truck you wanted to use.” When the teacher uses active listening, he lets children know he is trying hard to help them identify the feelings they have and respond to those emotions in appropriate ways.

Another form of verbal guidance is called redirection. Two-year-old Andrew is fascinated by climbing and is preparing to move from his chair to the nearby table. His teacher, knowing Andrew’s love of books, takes him by the hand and says, “Andrew, let’s go find a book to read.” Marion (2007) suggests that for the youngest children, redirection becomes a way to divert or distract the child from an undesirable behavior into a more appropriate activity. For older children, teachers can verbalize a substitute for the problem behavior: “Rachelle, you will need to get your own blocks from the shelf. Martin is using those.”

When teachers initiate verbal messages, they should use positive directions, telling the child what to do, rather than what not to do (Miller, 2007). When an adult says, “Don’t jump off the table!” it is almost as if the child does not hear the “don’t” and is further encouraged to engage in the inappropriate behavior. In addition, don’t statements fail to tell the child what it is you would rather have her do. The statement “Climb down off the table, please” clearly identifies what it is you expect and makes it easier for most children to comply.

Teachers can also strengthen verbal communication by making it clear when children have choices (Marion, 2007). Many times, choices are appropriate and useful to children in developing independence and decision-making skills. “Gary, would you like to use the computer now that Carla has finished, or are you interested in continuing with your math project?” Other times, however, adults inadvertently give children choices when they really do not mean to do so. Young children think more literally than adults do, so when they hear phrases like, “Would you like to sit down now for group time?” they may well assume that you have given them a choice. Another common problem many teachers have is ending their statements with “okay?” “Philip, it’s clean-up time now, okay?” Without meaning to do so, adults have given children an implied choice by the words they have used. Hearron and Hildebrand (2005) give additional suggestions for making verbal guidance more effective with young children:

  • Get down on the child’s level and speak quietly and directly as you make eye contact.
  • Place the action part of your guidance statement at the beginning (“Hold tight, or you might fall out of the swing”).
  • Give directions at the time and place you want behavior to occur.
  • Give logical and accurate reasons for your requests.
  • Keep competition to a minimum in your verbal guidance.
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