Wed, 14 May 2003

Helping children develop their communication skills

Donya Betancourt, Pediatrician,

Popularity is a common issue for parents of school-aged children. Is your child picked on, teased by classmates or left out of activities during playtime at school?

In general, positive behavior, such as cooperation, is associated with being accepted by peers, while antisocial behavior, such as aggression, is associated with unpopularity. Good communication skills are also linked to being well-liked.

Popular children appear to communicate better than the unpopular child. The popular child is more likely to be clear in direct communications.

Clarity in communication is accomplished when children use the other child's name, use eye contact or touch the child they intend to address. This communicative child will also reply appropriately when spoken to, rather than ignoring the speaker, changing the subject or saying something irrelevant.

It is important to recognize the role of the peer group in maintaining a child's level of social acceptance. If a negative reputation is developed, helping the child become accepted may require more than a change in the child's behavior; it may also be necessary to point out to the other children when the child's behavior changes and to guide them to respond to the child in positive ways.

To assist a disliked child in gaining acceptance, careful, informed observation is needed. Does the child have greater success interacting with one or two peers than with larger groups? Does the child often seem to misinterpret the apparent intentions and emotional cues of other children? When rejecting a playmate's suggestion, does the child provide a reason or an alternative idea? Do classmates consistently rebuff or ignore the child's attempts to engage in play, even when the child is using strategies that should work?

There is no recipe for facilitating acceptance. To help a child, it is essential to identify the child's area of difficulty.

Adults who work with groups of children may feel frustrated in their attempts to help a child achieve social acceptance. Special play activities can be arranged, such as grouping children who lack social skills with those who are socially competent and will thus provide examples for learning effective skills.

Planning special play sessions with a younger child may help the socially isolated child. The decision to pair a child with a younger or more socially skilled child should depend on whether the child's social isolation is due to ineffective social skills or a lack of confidence.

Some children have adequate social skills, but are anxious and inhibited about using them. Opportunities to be the big guy in play with a younger child may give the inhibited child a needed boost of social confidence.

Sometimes disliked children behave aggressively because they don't know how to resolve conflicts. When a child has difficulty entering ongoing play, an adult can steer the child toward smaller or more accepting groups, or can structure the environment to include inviting spaces for a private small group or one-on-one play.

A loft, a tent or a large empty box might make an inviting space. When a child asks, "Can I play?" the teacher can guide the child in observing the ongoing play, figuring out the group's theme and purpose, and thinking of a role to play or of ways to contribute to the group.

The teacher's attempts to help a disliked child find a comfortable niche in the peer group may prove more successful if the child's family is involved, either directly or indirectly.

After describing to the parent what techniques are being tried in the classroom, the teacher may suggest how the parent can use some of the strategies to help the child play with peers at home or interact with siblings.

Children who feel good about themselves and experience loving family relationships may bring their expectations of acceptance and success to the peer group. Such expectations can become self- fulfilling prophecies.

For the child whose poor self-image reflects difficulties in the child's family, parent-teacher conferences in which the teacher can offer support may be helpful. Topics such as positive discipline and effective parent-child interaction can be helpful. Parent discussion groups, facilitated by a knowledgeable professional, can provide information about the importance of social competence and guidance strategies that can help parents facilitate their child's development.