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How to support your child’s social communication development

March 13, 2020
How to support your child’s social communication development

In early childhood development, one of the most eagerly awaited milestones is a child’s first words. We often place so much emphasis on the use of verbal language that we sometimes overlook the importance of foundational communication skills that evolve before or alongside words.  

There are lots of components of communication, particularly social communication. This includes using eye contact, gesture, facial expression, body language, tone of voice, turn-taking, and joint attention. Our Speech Pathologist Natasha wrote a piece detailing joint attention in our November Newsletter, if you would like to have further information on this (click to read). Social communication can be broken down into four steps that are clearly outlined by Michelle Garcia Winner in her book ‘Social Thinking Thinksheets for tweens and teens- Learning to read in between the social lines’;  

Thinking about the thoughts and feelings of others  

This is the development of Theory of Mind and the understanding that other people have different experiences to you, and different ideas, preferences, wants and needs. This skill develops over many years and is fundamental in being cooperative, showing interest in others, being empathetic, accepting others’ ideas, and many other skills that are deemed important ‘people-skills’ in childhood and adulthood.  

Being aware of your physical presence and the physical presence of others 

Children need to learn that we communicate our thoughts and feelings through our physical presence using our body language, body position in space in relation to other people, body movements and facial expressions. We learn how to interpret this communication from other people, and how to use this form of communication to convey our own thoughts and feelings. For more information on understanding personal space and moving your body in a group, read through the ‘Social Skills- Personal Body Space’ blog written by Speech Pathologist Genevieve (click to read). 

Using your eyes to think about others 

Our eyes are often a window into our minds, and reflect what we are thinking, wanting or planning. Children learn to observe other’s eye gaze and relate that to what they are thinking and talking about. It is also imperative to use eye contact to gain information about physical communication of others as further context to the verbal communication.  

Using your language to relate to others 

Once children have mastered the first three steps, they can use their verbal language skills to talking to others about shared interests, ask questions and make comments, show interest in other people, their ideas and what is important to them, and to understand situational context and adapt language to suit different situations.  

Understanding and using the above 4 steps of social thinking and social communication is imperative for having positive and successful interactions, conversations and relationships with other people. A child’s first opportunity to practice these skills are with their parents and wider family, and they continue practicing these skills in kinder, school, and into adulthood. Strong social communication is important for being part of a team or a group, forming strong connections with people, and having your needs and wants met.  

You can support the development of your child’s social communication by; 

  • Helping your child understand their own feelings and other people’s feelings and thoughts by talking about them.  
  • Supporting your child to understand the facial expressions and body language of others. You can describe what you see and link it to feelings (e.g. his eyebrows are going down, he is tensing his arms and clenching his fists, he looks angry). 
  • Helping your child solving social problems by thinking aloud. For example, “I want to join in with that group, I wonder what I could say? I might ask if I could have a turn next”.  
  • Talking about the rules of belonging to a group including how to initiate conversations/play, turn taking, talking to friends about their interests, expressing ideas, negotiating and tuning in to other people’s responses. 
  • Talking about your feelings and perceptions of different situations, and how they might be different to other family members’. 

For further support in developing your child’s social communication goals, Melbourne Child Development is running the Hanen – More Than Words program again in the second half of the year. This program supports parents in developing the skills needed to help their children’s social communication grow. This includes increasing their joint attention, their interest in engaging and playing with others, their ability to remain regulated and engaged in play with others, their ability to take turns and share how they are feeling or what they are thinking.  

For more information on this program, please see our website; https://www.melbournechilddevelopment.com.au/more-than-words-the-hanen-program/.