You bring your newborn baby home from the hospital and have many things on your mind. Feeding schedules, diaper changes and sleep routines color the early days of new-parenthood. But there’s something else that begins on day one you might not have thought about—developing your child’s communication skills. From the very beginning of life, all of our interactions with our children are teaching them how to express their wants and needs to eventually become independent human beings.
In a child care setting like Kiddie Academy®, we provide a consistent focus on developing important communication skills with children of all ages, but it’s something parents can, and should, be doing every day at home as well.
Does it ever feel silly talking to an infant like they could respond back? It might, but this is one of the first things we can do with our children to help them learn reciprocal communication, or the ability to carry on a back-and-forth conversation by listening carefully, responding thoughtfully and using appropriate body language.
The best way to get started with a baby is to practice serve-and-return dialogue, heavy on facial expressions and eye contact. Parents can narrate simple, everyday activities like a diaper change, bath time or a neighborhood walk, stopping to allow baby to “respond” through facial expressions or coos. Reward these interactions with excited verbal and nonverbal expressions to encourage continued responses.
Once your child develops the ability to understand words and phrases, focus on play-based communication development. Not only will this grow your bond with your child, but it will also help them learn how to communicate with others through in-depth interactions.
Put on a puppet or stuffed-animal show together! Start by creating a simple story with your child, letting them take turns voicing different characters and using the puppets to act out different scenarios. Encourage them to ask questions and respond to the puppet's dialogue. Pause occasionally to ask your child open-ended questions about the story, prompting them to elaborate and build on the narrative. Make-believe scenarios like “restaurant” and “grocery store” are also great ways to have fun while focusing on realistic, everyday interactions. Be sure to celebrate their creativity in these situations, and you’ll build their confidence in communication even more.
This age is also a good time to focus on learning to identify and name emotions. By openly discussing their feelings, children are more likely to understand their own emotions and relate to others. When you notice your child has a positive emotion, simply stating something like, “you should feel proud of yourself for putting on your own hat; that’s an important part of dressing yourself,” helps them to name the feeling of pride. The same can be true for negative emotions. When you see your child is experiencing a difficult time with an activity, help them identify it by saying something like, “I see that puzzle is making you feel frustrated; I’m here if you need help.”
An easy and effective way to encourage preschool-aged children to participate in reciprocal communication is to provide them with a prompt to get a conversation started. Begin by asking open-ended questions like: “What made you smile/laugh today?” “What’s your favorite toy right now?” and “Tell me what your perfect day would be.” Ask thoughtful follow-up questions and encourage elaboration. This activity helps children learn to discuss a variety of topics and share their opinions. It also teaches patient listening when others are sharing their own thoughts. The best part? This activity can be done virtually anywhere, like in the car, at the dinner table or just before bedtime.
Encourage your children to put all of these skills into action by scheduling play dates with friends their age. While allowing for free play, also provide activities that focus on cooperation and dialogue like legos, dolls or cars. Don’t jump in at the first sign of a problem–allow your children to use those skills they’ve learned to see if they can come to a compromise.
At any age, but especially as your children get older, avoid speaking “at” your children, and instead pause to give them time to absorb what you said and develop a response. Imagine a game of catch: you talk, your child listens and responds, then your turn comes again. It's this back-and-forth sharing of thoughts and feelings that helps you understand each other better and builds a strong connection while growing your child’s vocabulary. These skills will then transfer to outside conversations with family, educators, and peers.
Stay focused on simple, everyday ways to boost communication skills in your children from an early age, and they are sure to reap the benefits as they grow.