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Nonverbal Signals for Communication

Understanding Children's Nonverbal Signals To Better Communicate With Them

An important part of learning to be a competent, social human being is learning how to send nonverbal information. Equally important is learning how to understand it. Children acquire these skills throughout childhood. The aim of this book is to document this important part of child development.

Children express their knowledge and understanding of situations, concepts and people in nonverbal ways before they can articulate the same information in words. So nonverbal communication provides an invaluable window through which to see children's social, emotional and cognitive development. Understanding these important channels of communication can help parents and professionals working with children facilitate children's learning and development.

Because children, particularly the very young, often lack the language skills to express their knowledge and understanding, we often seriously underestimate their abilities. This is a great folly on our part, and I hope the current text goes some way to rectify this. What you will find as you read on is that there is a wealth of information in nonverbal signals. Sometimes we respond to these cues without conscious awareness. Sometimes we remain entirely ignorant of them. Even worse, because of inaccurate "folk psychology" we often misinterpret nonverbal cues and draw the wrong conclusions. This book aims to document some of the ways that children communicate over and above what they say.

From Chapter Three: Hand Gestures


Gesture not only reflects children's understanding and knowledge, but it can also influence the way that children learn. Goldin-Meadow (1999) proposes that this occurs via two routes.

The first has already been described. Gesture demonstrates to teachers and parents the level of understanding of the child. This understanding may include their newest and often still implicitly understood thoughts. This can allow the adult to offer instruction or help at the most appropriate level to facilitate learning.

The importance of sensitively structuring learning has been shown in a number of studies (Wood Bruner & Ross 1976), where an adult scaffolds the child's learning by timely instructions. The most recent research shows that gesture provides important cues that help in this process (Goldin-Meadow 1999).

So if you're trying to decide what a child understands about a given problem, make sure you look at their gestures as well as listen to what they say as they explain their reasoning to you. The information conveyed in gesture but not in speech is likely to be the information that the child is least sure of and in most need of extra help with. If some part of their reasoning is incomplete and not articulated in either gesture or speech, you may need to take a step back and give additional support to elicit this.

Second, gesture provides a different way for the child to think through problems that may be too difficult to formulate in a verbal manner. For example it may be easier to express the dynamic and spatial relationships between the earth, sun and moon in gesture than articulating all of the information in speech. Furthermore, by using gesture to "think about" some aspects of the information, this "frees up" verbal resources to deal with other points. In other words encouraging children to gesture when they are thinking about and reasoning about complex concepts can help them to spread out the mental load of the task. In the earth, sun and moon example, it might be helpful for the child to gesture the moon orbiting the earth while saying "at the same time the earth orbits the sun." With a little imagination it is possible to think of similar ways to help children express almost anything and in doing so to help them understand.

Gesture can help children perform better on certain tasks. For example, 4-year-olds made fewer errors in counting when they were allowed to gesture than when this wasn't allowed (Saxe & Kaplan 1981). Younger children made errors regardless of whether they were allowed to gesture or not, suggesting that their gesturing behavior did not help their processing of the task. Older children performed without error regardless of accompanying gesturing behavior, presumably because the counting procedure was so well learned for them and therefore less demanding. These results suggest that 4-year-olds know how to count but that it is a demanding task. Performing gestures somehow decreases the "cognitive load" of counting. The same principles will apply for an age-appropriate task at any age.

From Chapter Four: Eye Gaze


One other type of eye signal is seen when two people look simultaneously at one another's eyes or face. This is called mutual gaze. Extended mutual gaze between adults is actually quite rare and, as we will see, has considerable emotional and physiological correlates. While we make eye contact with people we don't know well, the duration of these glances is usually quite short (about 1.5 seconds). Extended mutual gaze is generally reserved for very close social relationships. It is most frequent in adult couples who report being in love (Rubin 1970), and mutual gaze is an important signal of emotional attachment.

Looking into someone's eyes has significant physiological effects. For babies and for adults, making mutual eye contact with another person increases heart and breathing rates and galvanic skin response – sweating to you and me (Gale Lucas Nissim & Harpham 1972; Field 1981). This can be experienced as pleasant in some circumstances, for example in a close friendship. However the experience is distinctly negative if it is interpreted as threatening or intimidating.

Mutual gaze has social and even cognitive influences from very early in life, almost as soon as babies begin to establish mutual eye contact with their caregivers. While babies look at faces from birth, they don't sustain mutual eye contact until they are about 2 to 3 weeks old. Delay in beginning to make mutual eye contact can sometimes be indicative of social and/or intellectual retardation.

One study found that babies who did not make mutual eye contact with their caregivers in their first month of life had rather different patterns of subsequent development compared with those who did. For example, early "non-gazers" generally showed developmental delay and had more behavioral problems at age 6 years than those who did engage in early mutual gaze (Keller and Zach 1993). It is difficult to tell whether the non-gazing reflected an underlying problem that was also associated with the problems that emerged later. Alternatively dysfunctional gazing behavior may have got these infants off to the wrong start with their caregivers resulting in less than optimal patterns of interactions and potential learning experiences.

Mutual gaze is experienced as very rewarding by caregivers, and the special feeling it evokes plays an important part in early parent-infant bonding. For many parents making mutual eye contact with their baby is their first "meeting of minds." Interestingly the same emotive import is not given to early mutual gaze in all cultures. In some societies infants are not attributed mental states until they are much older, and little significance is placed on their early nonverbal behaviors. Indeed there are individual differences within any culture in terms of what sort of mental abilities are assumed in infants. This has been called maternal "mind-mindedness" (Meins, 1998).

Mothers who are high on mind-mindedness consider their infants to be intentional, thinking people from very early, and they treat them as such. This influences a number of aspects of development. For example, mothers who are "mind-minded" typically have babies who are securely attached to them.

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