I was astonished recently when a teacher called across the classroom to tell me a two-year-old who was having adjustment issues had “painted a person—head, arms, legs.” I responded how advanced that was for his age, which made the busy teacher look at me quizzically. “No, no,” she said. “He didn’t draw a person on paper, he tried to paint one of his classmates.” Words often don’t convey the whole reality.
We are used to miscommunication in the adult world—the need, when there appears to be a misunderstanding, to stop and check in. “Is this what you meant?” Grown-ups don’t usually throw a tantrum because someone communicated unclearly or hit because someone doesn’t understand what they were saying.
Yet one of the most common upsets for children at every stage of development is the frustration that they aren’t being heard or understood. Yelling, tantrums, tears, and even patterns of patterns of aggression often result when attempts at communication, especially expressing an urgent need, seem to fall on deaf ears.
That’s why we count basic verbal ability as a readiness factor for preschool. The pandemic has affected language development, causing delays in many young children, especially boys, and many parents avail themselves of speech therapy as a helpful way to support communication skills.
Parents are often adept at interpreting children’s gestures and words, while teachers and other children may not understand. Parents can help by not over-interpreting children’s body language and coaching them to use words to express their wishes and needs to others.
As children get older, frustrations with communication have less to do with enunciation and more to do with vocabulary and expressing concepts. As play becomes more cooperative, it involves the ability to negotiate, establish rules, and repair misunderstandings. Sometimes others don’t agree with what we want, but being able to present ideas in an understandable way facilitates happy interaction.
Parents can help by negotiating play scenarios and establishing the rules for games at home. At every age, it’s important to empathize with children when they can’t get their ideas across and help them strategize ways to stay calm and able to keep trying. We can say, “I see you’re frustrated that I don’t understand what you’re saying. Can you say it more slowly? Can you say it another way?”
We want to teach children to be compassionate with others who are struggling to make themselves understood, especially children whose first language isn’t English.
If we help children understand that misunderstandings happen to everyone and that sometimes repeating and clarifying are important aspects of communication, we help them to be more patient and empathic in their social interactions.
Mostly we want to remember to be fully present for children when they’re talking. That’s the way we demonstrate that we value their thoughts and ideas and encourage them to make efforts to articulate them.