By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW
What is communication, and why is it important? From a very basic standpoint, most people have a natural human desire to communicate. But communication can be a complex topic. So while I promise to discuss teaching communication skills to kids, I think it may be helpful to first dive deeper so that we may truly reflect on our practices and what is behind them.
Bear with me while I get a bit theoretical, but it’s relevant. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a psychology theory that suggests that human beings have specific needs that must be satisfied before a higher level of needs can be tended to and met.
It is typically conceptualized as a pyramid with the bottom level including physiological needs: food, water, shelter, and rest. Above this are safety needs, including security of the body, health, and safety of property. Next comes the level relating to love and belonging, which involves friendship and family. At the next level are respect and acceptance of and by others, and at the top of the pyramid is self-actualization. Self-actualization means that all the other needs have been satisfied to some degree, allowing individuals to be creative and spontaneous and to fulfill their desires and talents to be the best possible versions of themselves.
More simply put: Someone who doesn’t feel safe at home is not going to be able to easily explore a passion and talent to develop, for example, as a musician.
It is my opinion that we can use this lens to consider the needs relevant for students. And in doing so, we can provide needs-sensitive support to help them develop effective communication skills. Additionally, we can be more aware of children who may not have their lower-level needs met consistently, and we can recognize how this may impact their abilities to function and understand what they are actually communicating to us. Then we are better equipped to offer them appropriate support and teach necessary skills.
Years ago, a professor of mine shared a story about relocating across the US with her tweenage daughter. Upon the start of school in this new region, her daughter refused to wear a beloved jacket that she had begged her mother to buy her just weeks prior (pre-move). She now said she “needed” a new one. The woman fought her daughter on her “need” for the new jacket initially, explaining that it was a perfectly fine and almost-new jacket. But eventually my professor understood that her daughter’s new peers in their new town did not wear this type of jacket. Acceptance and belonging were truly important for her daughter at that time in her life and psychological development. When my professor reframed her perspective on the situation using a needs-theory lens, she accepted this communication from her daughter and felt compassion for her. And if I remember correctly, this did not mean she bought her daughter a new jacket; however, she didn’t force her daughter to wear the old one.
This story highlights the importance of being able to identify what needs are at stake for a child so we can help meet those needs.
Back to Communication
Communication can be seen as a way to meet a need, for example, when someone who needs to be fed finds a way to communicate that. Ultimately we hope children’s basic needs are being met so they can develop effective communication about their higher-level needs, such as friendship, belonging, self-esteem, and how they want to live a meaningful life. And as educators and counselors, we have an essential role in facilitating this communication with kids!
In my social work graduate program, we spent a lot of time digging into the concept and skill of “meeting people where they’re at.” This requires us to pay attention. We cannot be prescriptive and one-size-fits-all in our care of others, especially kids. And while this makes the task of teaching extremely challenging, taking the time to meet kids where they are truly does make all the difference.
How Do We Do This?
We can effectively receive children’s communication by identifying, understanding, and naming what needs they are trying to meet and helping them see what it is they are doing. For example:
“You seem like you are having trouble staying awake today, and that tells me that you must not have had the sleep your body needed. That must be so hard for you right now, and I bet your concentration isn’t as good as it would be with a full night’s sleep. Let’s see what we can do to help with this situation.”
“I know that all your friends are going to the pizza party on Friday, and I understand how important it is for you to stay connected with your friends. We have a lot going on that night, so if we can’t go, we will see about letting you have some of the kids over on Sunday.”
In being mindful of how we communicate with kids, we are teaching them so much. We can talk directly and with respect and also validate where they are coming from. In doing so, we are building the foundation of a trusting relationship with kids in which we can continue to teach them the communication skills that are more functional for them at a given point in time.
Other things to consider when attempting to shape effective communication for kids:
- Behavior communicates. What children may or may not be saying with verbal language, they may be telling us nonverbally with their behavior. We must pay close attention to these nonverbal messages, and rather than being reactionary and punitive, we must dig to understand what kids are trying to tell us. Once we know that, we can teach kids more helpful ways to get their needs met. Often kids don’t even realize the connection between what they need and how they behave to get it. We can link those things for them so they can realize the need for change. Consider playing a game in which students take turns acting out a situation involving a basic need that needs to be met. Suggest scenarios like, “Act out someone who is really hungry and it’s taking a long time to eat.” Allow them to be silly and have fun. Point out how behavior communicates a lot. Then ask the group to generate more effective ways to communicate the need and to problem-solve ways to better manage the situation.
- Nonverbal communication matters. Once we understand that behavior is more than just words, we can tackle challenging nonverbal communication traps. For example, one concrete way to teach kids about communication is to show or draw an “iceberg of communication.” Explain that the top part of the iceberg is the most obvious part, like the words people say. However, just like an iceberg, the words (the tip) are really the smallest part of communication, and there is so much more that lies beneath the surface. See if kids can brainstorm other things involved in communication, such as tone of voice, volume, word choice, and gestures. See if they are able to dive deeper to find that attitudes, fears, expectations, opinions, and value systems—as well as how deeply the people communicating feel connected—are also part of that iceberg. Elucidate that these are huge parts of communication that we all can pay attention to and learn about, but that it takes time and practice to do this.
- Above all, practice. Connect all these ideas together by letting kids act out scenarios. Oftentimes, we just tell kids what is right and wrong, rather than letting them really marinate in their own experiences and make sense of them. When we give students hypothetical yet realistic situations to practice with, we can show them why it’s so important to pay attention to healthy communication. Assign role plays in small groups or in a larger class discussion. One good activity is to have one person give a comment (such as “Nice shirt”) to another person in as many ways as they can and see if the others watching can identify what type of tone or attitude is being communicated. Ask: “Did that sound like a compliment? Could you tell it was sarcastic? What else is going on here?” Next, have the person who received the comments act out, with verbal and nonverbal communication, how she or he would receive each version. Ask this student how each version of the comment felt, and ask the other students what they imagine it would feel like. Bring empathy into the equation and link it all back to how we communicate with others.
“Do as I Say, and as I Do”
Sure, there is always room for teaching simple communication skills. There are all kinds of curricula that teach kids about eye contact, basic body language, turn-taking, I-statements, and mediation, and we must continue to use these tools. All communication tools matter. But I would also encourage you to remember our friend Maslow and think about what place of need children are coming from, meet them where they are, and see if that helps you communicate with them. Let this be your guide as to what you want to teach them about healthy communication.
I also implore you to really pay attention to how you communicate with others. Perhaps invite yourself to be an observer in your own life and just notice (without judgment) how you engage in relationships. Are you sarcastic or passive aggressive? Do you gossip? Do you dismiss what kids are saying or talk over them? What do you say nonverbally? Is there anywhere that you’d like to make changes so that you can be more positively influential with children? When we focus on being better, we can keep better focus on kids.
Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6), and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and joy in the world. She enjoys writing, knitting, laughing, walking, and using mindfulness. Connect with Amanda on Twitter @LicswAmanda and on her blog www.amandasymmes.com.
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