Ministry of Education, Guyana

Nonverbal Communication in Children

Recognizing and understanding the nonverbal communication in children is crucial to parent, teach or guide them. Nonverbal communication is “communication without words. It includes apparent behaviors such as facial expressions, eyes, touching, and tone of voice, as well as less obvious messages such as dress, posture and spatial distance between two or more people.” Children speak their own language through these various cues and gestures. Learning what they are and how to understand them is one of the most important aspects in understanding children.

One of the most common nonverbal communications in children is gestures. Gestures can be anything that incorporates a movement of the body and signifies a message. Some children shrug their shoulders, throw their hands up in the air or storm off with heavy feet to show they are angry or upset. Gestures are typically paired up with verbal communication, but they don’t have to be. Each child is different, so it is important to spend time with a child to learn his gestures and meanings.

Facial Expressions
Children don’t have the same ability to filter their emotions as adults, so they tend to wear their feelings on their sleeve. Children are very easy to figure out when they like or dislike something. Facial expressions typically give away what a child is thinking or feeling. Catching facial expressions and asking the right questions will provide you with a way to understand more deeply what she is thinking or feeling.

Spatial Distance
A child will typically form his normal spatial distance depending on his upbringing and cultural environment. If a child is raised in a family that is very physically affectionate, she will be more comfortable with close spatial distance. However, a child raised in a non-physically affectionate family may be uncomfortable in the same situation. Everyone has personal space, even children. Recognizing the differences in various children will help you relate and understand each unique child.

Vocal Tone
The tone of a child’s voice will help to decode the message she's sending. If a child sounds happy, she most likely is. If a child is verbally saying she is happy, but her vocal tone sounds contradictory, you may want to ask a few questions to see if she is being honest. When verbal communication and nonverbal communication don’t match up, it is a sign that the child is being dishonest.

Teaching a child to obey and understand nonverbal cues is extremely important, “designing and using a consistent routine is the beginning of teaching cues.” Nonverbal cues create a world of safety for a child. If he knows that after he has his bath at night he is going to bed, he will begin to trust in the system you set up. Cues can be taught for emergency situations wherein a child knows a routine that has been previously taught to him. The most common example is a fire drill in school. The child learns that the fire alarm is the cue to follow the emergency procedure.


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