Teaching communication is one of the most important things parents do to educate their children. Children who hear more words by the time they start school have significant advantages over kids who are raised in word spare environments. This has come to be known as the “word gap” between privileged and underprivileged children (you can look up research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley). However, along with vocabulary, children must learn about conversation skills.
Parents play an essential part in teaching children the social skills associated with conversation. In the past there were more opportunities for children to observe and participate in discussion. Today, time spent in front of screens (parents and children alike), rushed meals on the go, and a loosening of manners among all in society (including presidential candidates) impede natural opportunities to learn to converse in a skillful way. As a result, kids struggle with mastering social skills. Children may report being left out, bullied, or they may falter when doing group work. These may be red flags for deficits in social communication.
teaching conversation at home
From the start, parents begin teaching conversation to babies. Peek-a-boo, exchanging raspberry sounds, and backing off when baby seems over stimulated are the earliest conversations. Reading and talking about books, playing follow the leader, and turn-taking games build upon a child’s development. Throughout development, adults are the models of social interaction skills for children and adolescents. With the explosion of social media, including tweets and texts, even adults have fewer daily occasions to maintain a conversation. So it is wise for adults to be conscious of the art of discussion.
Children must be interested in others and not just themselves and their own views and interests. Teaching tolerance and perspective taking will motivate children to listen and learn. Turn taking is another skill that can be taught early in development. Teaching children not to interrupt is an essential skill.
Next, children should be engaged in conversation daily. Parents can ask open-ended questions, repeat key points back to the child, and show interest (make eye contact). Praise shapes appropriate skills, so parents should acknowledge good conversation skills when engaged in discussion with the child. Refrain from peppering your child with questions about his school day. Instead, ask about things the child is interested in, share new things you learn about these topics. Encourage story telling during family times.
Since few families share meals together, take walks, engage during car rides or at the store. Look carefully at the schedule. Is too much time spent on a playing field? Sports are not rich opportunities to practice verbal skills. Excess homework also saps a child’s opportunity to relax and hang out with others in casual discourse.
listening as a social skill
Listening is not only related to following directions, but also an essential social skill. “Think with your eyes” and “full body listening” are catch phrases that help children improve their social affect and demonstrate their interest in others. Kids can develop their social detective skills to know what the other person is interested in and read cues that help a child know when to end a conversation or change subjects (search socialthinking.com). Check out some of the social skill videos for children including Howard B. Wigglebottom and WonderGrove Kids.
The art of conversation is not dead—but it is limping! We owe it to children to teach self expression beyond texts and selfies. Pragmatic language skills must be deliberately taught as part of a child’s education—but we can’t leave it up to teachers alone. Conversation, negotiation, and problem solving are essential skills for your child to fulfill his or her academic and social potential. Unplug, gather together, listen and engage at home.
Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist in practice at Pelts Kirkhart & Associates. 504.581.3933