It’s an amazing experience to hear babies and toddlers speak their first words. But language is pretty complex. It involves more than just learning to vocalize words or associate meaning to them. We can help children communicate more effectively by teaching them social skills around appropriate speech. Children can learn to confidently assert themselves in expressing wants and needs and in engaging in play, conversation, and learning.
Your child’s communication style might be anywhere on the spectrum of passive to assertive to aggressive. Children who seem passive about speaking up might be intimidated by adults who have focused primarily on the child’s role of listening and following adult directions. These children could become targets of bullying if their peers realize that they can’t or won’t speak up in resistance to unfair treatment. At the other extreme, some children may lash out in ways that seem aggressive when their needs aren’t met, or they feel that boundaries have been crossed. They generally don’t have any intention of harming others, but they may lack the skills to express emotions or speak and act respectfully.
Socially appropriate assertiveness of one’s needs and rights is neither passive nor aggressive. It involves a positive attitude and self-assuredness that respects others while validating oneself. Here are some tips to help your child practice assertively speaking up in various settings.
1. Acquaint children with nuances of tone, volume, and body language.
In addition to the words themselves, another part of delivering a message is the volume of the voice and the tone used, as well as body language. Through role-play, children can be taught to look in the eyes of the person they are addressing and to speak loudly enough to be heard. You may also need to demonstrate how close a child should stand to someone to be heard without violating the person’s space bubble.
2. Teach rules of speech etiquette.
Talk about expectations in particular settings, such as not speaking at the dinner table while chewing; whispering in the library; or not interrupting someone who is speaking. Let them know that you are always interested in them and hearing what they have to say, but that there are certain times and ways of speaking that will produce better results for being heard.
3. Practice answering simple questions.
Practice asking children basic questions that other people might ask them, such as their age or their pet’s name. Ask them, for example, about their favorite color or food, giving suggestions for them to consider. Car rides, bedtime, or circle time at school can be good opportunities to ask questions, practice scenarios, and allow children to open up.
Also practice hand-raising in preparation for school settings. Alone or in a small group setting, ask simple questions that children can raise their hands to answer. For instance, you might hold up household items and ask, “What is this?” or “What is this used for?”
4. Facilitate learning from others.
Children can learn that other people are interesting and that they can learn more about the person and situation by asking questions. Help children practice speaking up and asking questions of peers or adults. Here are a few examples of how you can coach them to ask: “Ask Everly if you can play with her.” “Ask Daddy where he works.” “Ask Davonte where the crayons are.” “Ask your sister to help you.”
5. Encourage children to speak up when there is a problem.
To encourage children to assert their knowledge that something isn’t right, you might intentionally call a toy or other item by the wrong name (such as saying “block” while holding a book). This allows the child to speak up and correct a small error in a nonthreatening situation. When children do speak up, make sure to acknowledge and apologize for your mistake and thank them for speaking up and clarifying the facts.
6. Show children how to ask for help.
Asking for help is an essential way for young children to have their needs met. You might coach the child to use simple phrases such as “I want __, please.” “Can you help me?” or “May I have __?” They can use these same template phrases to appropriately ask for anything they might need.
When children request help with a situation, be sure to either help them or patiently guide them in how they can address the situation on their own or with someone else’s help. Whether or not you consent to the request, it becomes a good starting place for understanding one another and should always be treated gently so children become confident in speaking up.
7. Demonstrate how to initiate a conversation.
A child can be taught to initiate a greeting and to use the other person’s name, such as “Good morning, Ava,” or “Hi, Abdi. How are you?” You can also direct the child to focus on what another person is doing, and to ask about it. For example, prompt the child to ask another child, “What are you building?”
8. Coach children in expanding conversations.
Children can learn to continue conversations by sharing information about themselves, and what they are doing or by asking questions. One great tool for expanding their conversational skills is learning to ask reciprocal questions. For instance, if someone asks them a question such as “What’s your favorite book?” the child can be coached to not only answer the question, but to then direct the same question to the other person.
9. Help children join an activity.
Sing, read stories, and play together. In one-on-one or small groups, your child may become more comfortable in participating, speaking up, and sharing ideas. You can also practice scenarios of respectfully playing with other children to prepare them for new settings.
Once children know about turn-taking and can stay on task for a few minutes, teach them to approach other children and ask, “Can I play?” In the beginning, role-play in a small group where the child would always be allowed to join the activity.
10. Support children in speaking up during play situations.
Children can also be taught to respond to their peers when there are problems during play, such as someone breaking the rules, playing unfairly, or taking items away from them. Use role-play to teach the child polite but assertive phrases like “Give that back, please,” “It’s my turn,” or “That’s mine.” Later a child might be able to use similar phrases to speak up and advocate for another child who is being treated unfairly.
We have addressed the skills and vocabulary children can use to speak up for their wants and needs and join in play and conversation. Keep in mind that there are many reasons why a child may be quieter and more reticent to speak. Some children have more timid personalities. Speech delays or anxiety can induce a lack of self-confidence. Past trauma may affect a child’s level of trust. Some children may feel vulnerable or uncomfortable speaking up to an adult for fear of being criticized or punished. In all these situations, our care and patience are necessary to establish trust. As you work compassionately to help children grow in confidence and self-expression, you help them learn to show respect to others and advocate for themselves.
Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., has her master’s degree in elementary education and gifted education. A former first-grade teacher, she has taught education classes at Utah State University and has supervised student teachers. Cheri and her husband David have six children and enjoy the company of their lively grandchildren. They live in Laurel, Maryland.
Free Spirit book series by Cheri Meiners:
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.