Teaching children complex communication

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. – George Bernard Shaw

Communication is a hugely complex thing.  The more I think about how complicated it is, the more it amazes me that more children (and adults) don’t struggle with it more.  As the quote above suggests, communication actually often breaks down between many people for all sorts of reasons, and sometimes people don’t even realise that what they meant to communicate is not what the other person heard.  As speech and language therapists we tend to focus a lot on words and sounds, but they’re actually only a small part of communication.  There are all sorts of other skills involved, and it can be hard to pick apart exactly where it has broken down for a child.


Let’s take an ordinary, everyday occurrence for most of us.  Someone comes up to you and says “Hi, how are you?”  In order to respond appropriately, you obviously need to understand the question and be able to put words together to make a response, but you also need a huge number of other skills.  Let’s take a look at what else is involved.

  • Proximity - You need to know how close to get to the person you’re talking to. You need to be close enough that you can hear each other, but you might make them feel uncomfortable if you get too close.  You might also be able to get closer to some people than others depending on the situation and how well you know them.  For example, I might stand closer to a good friend who asked that question than I would to someone working on the checkout at the supermarket.
  • Volume – you need to speak loudly enough to be heard, but not shout. Like many of these skills, you have to make an immediate and unconscious assessment of the situation in order to determine how to do this appropriately.  Is there background noise?  Are there many other people around?  Are you in a library?  A school playground?  These things will all make a difference.  What you want to say will also make a difference – if I were going to answer that question by talking about some personal information I might speak slightly more quietly than if I was just saying a breezy “fine thanks, how are you?”
  • Listening – You need to be able to focus on the question in the first place. This means filtering out the background noise, identifying where the sound is coming from and following eye gaze and other verbal or non-verbal clues to know that it is you that the person is talking to.
  • Self-knowledge – You also need to know the answer to the question in order to answer it. In this case, that means knowing how you are, which isn’t always straightforward!
  • Understanding social convention – Let’s face it, when someone asks you how you are, they don’t always want an honest answer! It’s a socially acceptable way of starting a conversation and most often, people just expect a quick “fine thanks” or “not too bad” in response.  If someone cold calls me and asks me “how are you?” they probably don’t want in-depth information about my health and wellbeing (though it may be tempting to give it to them in hopes of making them put the phone down!)  With a close friend, it may be acceptable to give an honest answer, but again this depends a little on the situation.  Even though they hopefully care a little more than the cold caller does, if we’re both rushed outside the school gates or passing each other on the street, there may not be time to go into detail.  Also, if I know my friend’s father died a few days ago, I may feel it inappropriate to go into huge detail about my own situation immediately, whether positive or negative and may give a very brief answer before enquiring after them.  Social convention is a hugely complex thing!
  • Turn-taking skills – You need to know that you’ve been asked a question and it is your turn to respond.
  • Filtering out other thoughts and your own physical state – When someone asked you that question you may have been in the middle of thinking about something else. You may be aware of a pain in a particular part of your body, or the fact that you’re hungry or late for an appointment or you need to go to the bathroom!  You need to put other thoughts aside for a moment and be able to make a response.

Is it any wonder that people make mistakes?!

Now, think about an equally common everyday occurrence in many families (including mine).  You go to pick your child up from school and say “what have you been doing?”  It’s a question they might be asked by all sorts of people – I might ask it when I collect a child from their classroom for therapy or the teacher might ask it on a Monday morning or at the beginning of a lesson.

Many children find these sorts of questions, which are supposed to be relaxed and chatty, very difficult and stressful to answer.  The first scenario was very basic, but this is now a much more challenging question. The child needs to do all the things we’ve spoken about but also they need to use other skills – memory (can they remember what they’ve been doing?), filtering the information (what is important to mention? – do they need to know that you went to the toilet or that the bell rang at lunchtime?) as well as much greater language processing skills.

For many children, they don’t have these skills and the only response options they have are to say nothing, look blank, ignore the question, run away or scream!  This is actually very successful communication, telling us that something was too much for them!

So, when communication breaks down with your child, or a child you’re working with (and particularly if this happens regularly in the same situation) it can be useful to think about some of these other aspects of conversation.  Where did it go wrong and what strategies can we use to help?

Helen Coleman SpeechBlogUK
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