The key to successful and positive relationships with children in childcare is good communication. Working with children is incredibly rewarding, but not without its challenges - this can be eased through finding effective communication strategies in childcare. While the specifics will differ according to each childcare centre’s learning philosophy, policies and individual carers, we are going to share some tips, skills and evidence-based advice for interacting with children that can apply to any setting.
Child-focused and evidence based approach
Communication strategies in childcare should be centred on the child and formed upon an evidence-based approach for each age group. As research on child psychology grows, there is increasing awareness of the significant role cognitive development plays in behaviour and communication – understanding which developmental phase children are in not only means you can communicate with them effectively, but gives you insight into their responses and reactions to situations. To get you started, here is a very brief rundown on the main factors to consider when communicating with each age group.
Before babies can talk, they are incredibly perceptive, and absorbing everything they see and hear. They communicate with us through sounds, gestures and crying, so make sure you’re listening and responding to these cues, and have plenty of verbal interactions (read about activities for babies here). Treat babies and young children like the whole, individual little people they are – include them in their care by explaining what you’re doing, and communicate with them as you would an older child even if they’re not able to respond with language, as this is how they learn.
This age group is going through huge developmental leaps such as beginning to talk, learning to use the toilet and becoming more independent in their world. Toddlers react immediately from their emotions because they have immature self-regulation skills, which can result in volatile and intense tantrums, and difficult behaviour.
This age group is often misunderstood because there is a gap between their seeming independence and ability to repeat instructions, and their ability to follow them and control themselves. This is because they lack impulse control, not because they are being ‘naughty’ or want to disobey. The world is a very big and confusing place, and toddlers are just becoming aware of how small and out of control they are, so things can quickly feel overwhelming and scary for them. As a carer, staying calm, kind and in control of your own emotions not only models healthy communication and social skills, but helps toddlers calm down and learn to regulate themselves.
Although this age group have more sophisticated communication skills and appear much more independent, their emotional intelligence is typically still very immature – because they are only just beginning to develop impulse control, they still have trouble listening and following instructions, and will need help and reminders from their carers. This age group can quickly revert to younger behaviours when overwhelmed, so try not to have unrealistic expectations of older children, and remain supportive and patient as you help them to navigate these changes.
Now that you have a brief understanding of how child development impacts behaviour, we have some practical tips to help when engaging with children of all ages.
Children learn through modelled behaviour
Children learn primarily through imitation, essentially copying behaviour, language and even tone of voice from their carers. This means that one of the most effective strategies to help children learn vital social and communication skills is through modelling the desired behaviour. Here are some examples:
- Respect - we all want kids to be respectful, so we have to teach them how by communicating and treating them with respect at all times and, where possible, respecting their bodily autonomy and personal space.
- Kindness - as an extension to respect, the best way to encourage kindness in children is by modelling kindness to them in how you speak and act.
- Manners - if you start listening, you’d be surprised how often adults forget basic manners like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’! Remember to use manners around children and they will soon pick them up.
To keep communication open and effective when children (especially toddlers!) are struggling with rules, transitions and boundaries, have a consistent, simple and clear approach. If children understand what’s expected of them, it’s much easier for them to accept the boundary and move on. When children do become distressed or dysregulated, which is common in this age group, stay calm and support the child through their emotions while still holding firm on the boundary/rule to ensure best outcomes for everyone.
Tip: similar to communication strategies for adults, try starting sentences with ‘I’ to prevent children from feeling attacked which can make them defensive and resistant to cooperation.
Some good boundaries/rules to make clear to children, and how to phrase:
- We can’t hurt each other – ‘I can’t let you hurt John, so I’m going to help you stop.’
- We can’t damage our environment/play equipment – ‘I can’t let you break that toy, so I’m going to put it somewhere safe.’
- We can’t treat each other unkindly – ‘I heard you say something unkind to Rose, I will need to take you somewhere quiet until you can stop saying it.’
Remember – no emotion or feeling is wrong, we just have to help the child process it in a safe way.
De-escalation of challenging behaviours
To prevent situations escalating, be alert and intervene quickly when it appears that a situation is becoming unsafe or that the child is struggling to regulate themselves. It’s important to give children the opportunity to try to find solutions amongst themselves (such as a dispute over a toy or play equipment), and usually they do this incredibly well. But since children don’t develop impulse control until they’re 4-6 years old, this age group can need help preventing unsafe or unkind behaviour.
If you suspect a child is going to hit or bite, be there to physically (and gently) stop them, explaining as you are doing so why that behaviour is not acceptable. This prevents incidents taking place, but it also means the carer can avoid getting frustrated themselves and maintain kind and calm communication – modelling respect and how to navigate conflict peacefully. If the child needs to be removed from the situation to calm down and keep everyone safe, make sure they understand what’s happening and that it doesn’t mean they are bad, but you can’t let them hurt others and need to give them space to process their emotions in a safe way.
To optimise communication strategies in childcare, consider these ideas and implement professional development for staff on this important topic to ensure a calm, safe and happy environment for everyone. Remember, communication is a two-way street and carers become the role models for kind, respectful and effective communication skills.
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