Walking to school, 3-year-old Daniel and his mother shivered as an early fall breeze swept away the warmth of the sun. "Look," said Daniel, pointing to flowers bowing and swaying in the wind. "It's so cold, even the flowers are shivering."

Within three short years, Daniel had mastered nearly all of the complexities of communicating. Like children the world over, he began developing his communication skills as an infant. As adults responded to his babbles, coos, and cries, Daniel found he could communicate pleasure, comfort, or discomfort. By 2 years of age, Daniel could use one- or two-word sentences, such as "Danny help," to communicate his wants, ideas, and emotions. And at 3 years of age, Daniel was able to communicate using full, complete-sometimes even poetic-sentences.

What an accomplishment! With the ability to use language to express their needs, thoughts, and feelings, children are able to make friends and to enjoy playing and being with others. These are the children who, because they can communicate, will be able to understand and participate within the larger community. Because of their communication skills, children can listen and learn from others, discuss ideas, and gain ever more knowledge of the world in which they live.

Creating Language-Rich Environments

Learning to communicate effectively is not a simple task. To become competent communicators, children benefit from language-rich environments. The richness of the language environment in children's homes is linked to children's language and literacy skills. Likewise, the school environment can be a powerful force in helping children learn to communicate.

Good schools for young children help them learn to communicate by:

  • structuring a safe environment that lets children know that they, and their ideas and ways of communicating them, are valued and respected;
  • planning the physical environment in ways that promote communication;
  • fostering the conventions of communication, helping children learn to look, to take turns, and to negotiate verbal conflicts.

Providing Security

"I can't seem to reach Alberto," complains a teacher. "When I ask him a question, he won't even look at me. He acts like he hasn't heard me at all." Even though children all over the world learn to communicate naturally, learning to communicate effectively takes skill and practice. Many children, like Alberto, may not feel secure enough to express themselves freely. Children need to learn that what they say will be valued and clearly acknowledged.

Each of us needs someone we can really talk to. "I tell her things I can't tell anyone else. I know she won't laugh at me or criticize," said a teacher about her best friend. Everyone, especially children, must feel a measure of safety and security before they can express themselves freely and openly.

You can build this security and safety by accepting the language children bring to school with them. Children do not learn language by being corrected or criticized. For example, Brooke runs to the classroom and excitedly tells the teacher, "Teacher, teacher, I seen a deer on the way to school." The teacher responds, "My name is not Teacher, call me by my name, Ms. Sally." Brooke begins again, with less enthusiasm, "Ms. Sally, I seen a deer. It was a real deer." The teacher says, "Say, 'I saw a deer,' not 'seen a deer.'" This time, with all the excitement gone, Brooke says, "Yes, I seen a deer." The teacher corrects Brooke again and again, telling her to say saw, not seen, until Brooke says nothing in reply. Brooke does not learn the difference between saw and seen, but she does learn that her way of talking is not accepted.

Children learn correct grammar by hearing it being used. To foster Brooke's willingness to communicate, as well as teach the correct use of saw and seen, the teacher could focus on Brooke's exciting news, saying, "Oh, you saw a deer! Tell me about it." Repeating what the child has said, even when you change some of the child's words, is reinforcing. Children who are reinforced for sharing their ideas will share them again.

When English Is a second Language

Learning to communicate involves learning to be a part of the group. Teachers can help children who are just learning English to feel secure, and accepted as members of the group, by doing the following:

  • Speak to them in a normal tone of voice. We tend to raise our voices when we talk to babies or others we think are not capable of completely understanding us. Talking in a normal tone of voice to children just learning English informs them that they are as competent as the others in the group.
  • Make them feel important. You can ask children who are just learning English to teach you and the other children how to pronounce words in their home language.
  • Pair children with more-outgoing children in the group to enhance their visibility within it. "Today, George and Alberto will choose the children to work with them on their project at the woodworking area."
  • Use children's "home name" to help them feel comfortable and free to talk.
  • Share assorted picture books that are written in the child's home language.
  • Spend time with the child, individually or within a small group, modeling conversation skills and techniques and teaching vocabulary.

Valuing Children's Ideas

Talking with children in ways that foster communication takes careful thought on the part of the teacher. Teachers who take a moment to stop what they are doing and listen to a child, and who think about how they will respond, including finding ways to expand on children's ideas, are those who are helping children gain the skills of effective communication.

It only takes a moment to stop and really listen to a child. Claire runs to her teacher with a newly finished painting that seems like a scribble of colors, saying, "Look, look! I made a pretty picture." The teacher stops, sits with Claire, and together they look at the painting. The teacher describes it to Claire. "Look, this pink line goes all through your painting. The yellow places are bright and sunny. You must have enjoyed painting this picture." "Yes," Claire proudly replies and, with confidence, she adds, "It's a painting about being happy."

Validating Emotions

Sometimes, valuing children's ideas can be challenging. Consider this scenario: Vanessa has been troubled by anger all day. After nap, her anger increases. Without provocation, Vanessa lashes out at Alberto, calling him a "stupidhead" for not getting out of her way. As Vanessa raises her hand to hit Alberto, the teacher steps in and, holding her hand, says, "I cannot let you hurt Alberto." After attending to Alberto, the teacher turns to Vanessa and says, "Let's find a quiet place for us to talk." Vanessa screams and hits the teacher, yelling, "You're the stupidhead. I hate you! I hate you!" The teacher calmly replies, "Understandably, you are very angry. You hate me now. But I can not let you hurt anyone, and I won't let anyone hurt you."

By recognizing Vanessa's anger, the teacher gives Vanessa a label for her feelings, sets limits on her behavior, and responds to her emotions. She acknowledges Vanessa's feelings without humiliating her. Vanessa learns that even when her behaviors are not acceptable, she is.

Adding another thought or idea to older children's sentences acknowledges children and fosters communication skills. "I couldn't find my mother at the mall last night," says a 5-year-old. The teacher, really listening to the child's fearful tone of voice, replies, "You must have been frightened. What did you do?" leading the child to give a description of her plight.

We all feel reinforced and comforted when another really listens to what we say. When someone recognizes our feelings, and shows they really care by expanding or extending what we say, just as with children, we feel acknowledged and valued.

Preparing the Physical Environment

Because communication takes place within the context of doing things together, it's helpful to have learning centers arranged in a way that promotes working together around a common theme. Within each of the centers, children can find materials that are carefully selected to promote communication. The art, music, and language areas should contain materials that motivate children to express their ideas.

In addition to centers of interest, this environment features raw materials. Cardboard and wooden boxes, wood planks and hollow blocks inspire children to work together, talk together, negotiate, and solve problems. Because no one tells children what to do with the materials, the children become the decision makers. To do so means they will have to communicate with one another.

Modeling Appropriate Behaviors

Social skills and communication skills go hand in hand. Children who look at the child they are talking with, who understand turn taking when communicating, and who know how to solve verbal conflicts are those who make and keep friends easily. They can enter or leave a group without disrupting the play, and they are at ease with adults and their peers.

Children who are ignored by others and have trouble communicating may not have learned that they need to look at the child who is doing the talking, or to look at the child they are talking to. You can model making eye contact by talking faceto-face with children, and by telling them what you are doing: "Sit with me so I can see you when I talk with you."

Shy children, or those who have been taught that making eye contact is disrespectful, can also be coached to look at others when they are communicating. Using puppets, one teacher coached a child to look at the puppet, just like they would look at the child who is talking. She asked another child to practice looking by talking to himself in a mirror.

Taking Turns

Communication requires taking turns. And to take turns, children must know how to use and understand the signals the speaker is giving. In the give-and-take of communication, timing is all-important. If you wait too long to respond to the speaker's pause, someone else will jump in and take over. But if you don't wait long enough, you'll cut off the person speaking and cause an argument. It is a difficult task for young children to judge when it's their turn to talk. They need to recognize nonverbal signals, facial changes, or changes in voice tone that signal when it's time for them to talk.

By 3 years of age, children learn that a question calls for them to respond, to take a turn. Often, however, 3-year-olds have nothing to say, so they answer with a "hmmm," an "OK," a shrug of the shoulders, or a laugh.

When in a group, young children can become overwhelmed with the task of taking turns. You can arrange places and spaces in which a child can talk with just one other child, practicing and gaining skills in turn taking. One teacher draped a blanket over a card table to give children a little hiding place in which to share ideas and secrets with one another.

Learning to Compromise

By 4 or 5 years of age, children skilled in communicating learn that if they keep on insisting, they'll lose the fight. Children learn that if they compromise ("I'll be the teacher first; then you can be the teacher"), they can keep the play moving along and still have their own way. Children who are able to verbally negotiate with others can do so because they know how to take into account what the other child says, wants, and needs.

Active teachers help children learn the skills of compromise and negotiation. They step into the play. A group of children is fighting over who will ride a new bike. The teacher asks them if they could take turns. One child says yes, picks up a clipboard and marker, and brings it to the group. "We could sign up," she says. The children, used to signing up for activities or events in their classroom, agree.

The communication skills children gain in the early childhood classroom are just the beginning. But those skills will form the foundation on which children can build ever more sophisticated methods of communication.

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart Communication - Age by Age (PDF)