It is essential to give some thought to the way we express our requests to young children on a daily basis, in order to optimise our chances to be understood correctly. We often tend to forget that their understanding capabilities are more limited than ours. Some advice from Heloise Junier, nursery psychologist.
1. Level down to the child and keep eye contact while talking
After calling out the child by his first name, position yourself to be at the same height as him. The purpose is to be on a same eye level (have you ever tried to communicate with someone who is standing on a ladder, high above you? In addition to it being unpleasant, this bottom-view communication can temper the message to the receiver). A face-to-face position, eyes to eyes, enables the adult to capture the child’s attention, thus optimizing his understanding of the message.
For instance, avoid shouting your request out loud across the room while he is busy playing. Moreover, do not make him look at you in the eye by holding his chin in your hand. If the child is not looking directly at you, it does not necessarily mean he is not paying attention: far from being a provocation, he is simply listening in his own way, which may be different from adults’ standards.
2. Adapt your non-verbal communication to the content of your message
In order to understand the meaning of your message and what you expect from him, the child instinctively focuses on your facial expression and your tone of voice, rather than the words you use. Yet, some professionals want to avoid giving direct, strict instructions by using a soft voice and neutral facial expression, and by showing compassion or even smiling to disguise whatever it is they are forbidding. “Chloe, you know that you mustn’t climb on the sofa” says the adult in a soft voice, with a compassionate facial expression, raised eyebrows and inclined head. This discrepancy can be misleading to the child. When forbidding something, your facial expression should be more serious (fixed look, tight jaw and frown) and with a firm yet not aggressive tone of voice. On the contrary, when you want to reassure or encourage your child, put your heart and soul into it by using a soft tone of voice and a sincere smile.
Indeed, the child’s intelligence is first and foremost emotional, before being verbal. In other words, he first feels the adult’s emotions before understanding the meaning of the speech he hears. When two adults communicate, non-verbal communication (gestures, looks, facial expression, posture) represents 70% of the overall communication, whereas the words represent only 30%. The younger the child is, the more non-verbal communication is predominant. For babies, who do not understand the meaning of words yet, non-verbal communication would be close to 99%…
3. Favour short and positive sentences
From a linguistic point of you, negative speech is more difficult to understand than affirmative speech. When we say “Don’t climb on the sofa!” to a child, his brain has a lot on his plate to decipher the information. First, he must single our the keywords, such as “climb”, an action verb, and “sofa”, a noun. These keywords will create the image of climbing up the sofa in his mind (indeed, if I tell you “do not think about a pink elephant dancing boogie-woogie in the savanna”, what will you brain immediately do? It will think about just that, of course!).
Afterwards, the child’s brain will cancel the action he imagined and reverse it: “do not climb on the sofa = go down from the sofa”. Negation requires a cognitive effort from the adult, to be understood; it induces an even more difficult challenge for the young and immature brain of the child. Because of that, it is better to explain to your child what it is he is supposed to do, rather than tell him what he should not to do. Opt for “go down” rather than “Do not climb on the sofa!”, “Whisper” rather than “Don’t scream”, “Stroke” rather than “Do not beat”, “Walk” rather than “Do not run”. This positive formulation creates, in the child’s brain, a mental image consistent with the meaning of your sentence.
Incidentally, during one of my conferences on communication, one of the dads in the room said: “Since I talk to my daughter as I talk to my cat, I have the impression that she understands me better! That changes everything!”. There was an awkward silence in the room. And yet, despite the clumsiness of his statement, this dad effectively summed up in one sentence the content of my intervention!
4. Wait for 5 seconds, give the child time to react
When you ask something to your child, for example “bring me your bib” or “come to change your nappy”, count up to 5 to let your child’s brain process the information and react accordingly.
A child’s brain is slower than the adult’s brain. Why? Because axons that link the neurons together are not yet fully myelinated. This reduces considerably the propagation speed of the nervous impulse from a cell to another. This myelin (an unappealing white substance) surrounds the axon and grows up little by little during the brain maturation (what we call the myelination process). This is the reason why the older the children are, the faster their brains get, to the greatest satisfaction of the adult! In this sense, in order to avoid an overload of information in the child’s brain, give only one instruction at a time. You may even break down the instructions step by step.
5. If he does not understand the instruction, show the child what you expect from him
The young child lives by concrete actions, by what is physically tangible. Owing to the lack of maturation of his brain and its connexions in the cerebral areas, the child might have difficulties understanding the relationship between gestures and words, between the instruction and the action to accomplish, even if he is already familiar with this action.
Thus, if you feel like your child fails to understand what you ask from him (i.e. “put your bib down in the laundry basket”), do not hesitate to guide him physically to accomplish the action, by guiding him gently to the basket, in this case. Another example: if you want him to stop pulling on Alban’s hair, show him how to explore his sibling’s hair in a different manner, by stroking them for instance. The child learns by imitating the adult. Showing him what you expect from him will help him achieve it by himself next time.