Supporting Teaching and Learning in Schools
Unit 3: Communication and Professional Relationships with Children, Young People and Adults (Y/601/3327)
Learning Criteria: Understand how to communicate with children, young people and adults.
Question 2.1: Explain the skills needed to communicate with children and young people:
Communication is at the core of teaching and guiding; without effective adult to child or young person communication, they cannot learn! I think Teena Kaman summed it up nicely in her book Teaching Assistant’s Handbook when she said “Effective communication with children and young people requires good inter-personal skills” (Kamen, T (2011) Teaching Assistant’s Handbook Level 3, Hodder Education, London.) Of course, this is also true when talking about communication with adults too.
The words that we choose to use when communicating with children and young people are an important factor but are actually only one part of the skills needed. Communication has so many other facets; is also about our availability to communicate, the way we speak, following the etiquette of ‘conversation’, our body language and, most importantly, how effectively we listen. It must be remembered that adult behaviours, such as listening to pupils, making eye contact with then and engaging in one-to-one face-to-face interactions, all promote secure adult-child relationships which those children will carry into adulthood themselves.
The phrase ‘effective communication skills’ can mean a plethora of smaller attributes which I write about indefinitely but I’m going to contain my enthusiasm and group them into; good written communication, effective verbal communication, positive body language, active listening, avoiding assumptions, asking questions and clarification and finally summarising and confirmation of key points.
Supporting teaching and learning means that the quality of any written communication is particularly important, i.e. it’s clarity, accuracy and comprehensiveness because poorly written communications could have an adverse effect on the help and support those children receive. So, it is important that when we write notes in pupils workbooks, describe activities to be carried out, create worksheets, etc that we say exactly what we mean, this can be done by structuring the item effectively, writing in a clear and concise style i.e. readable handwriting, avoiding common grammatical mistakes and getting the message across clearly and unambiguously. Of course written communication can also take the form of “Well Done” certificates or stickers as a reward for good work or effort but it is still vital that it is written (or printed) correctly and the child or young person understands why they are receiving it.
Talking to a child or young person using a pleasant, calm voice and with simple language, helps to establish a secure relationship with him/her and the skill to effectively communicate, be it on a one-to-one basis, to a small group, to a whole class or more is a basic requirement for working in a school. Being able to articulate what you want to say, being able to elicit responses from others and being able to actively listen to what other have to say are all part of effective communication. It is also worth remembering that any potential barriers to communicate, such as physical or learning disabilities also need to be considered. Children and young people develop their speech and language skills by learning from the adults around them so being aware of the key stages of development and suggested milestones will also contribute to effective verbal communication. Praise and encouragement is also an essential part of effective communication with children and young people.
I was looking for statistics to confirm that non-verbal communication is more pertinent to effective communication than the words we use, Hands on Scotland said this
“Research has found that, when we communicate face-to-face about our likes and dislikes, only 7% of the meaning is conveyed by the words we use. 55% is conveyed by our facial expressions and other body language. 38% is conveyed by our tone of voice.”
Mehrabian, A. (1971). Silent Messages. Belmont, California: Wadsworth.” (Hands On Scotland Good Relationships (Online [Available] http://www.handsonscotland.co.uk/flourishing_and_wellbeing_in_children_and_young_people/good_relationships/good_relationships.html (26/03/2016) which although is quoting from research carried out decades ago it must still be relevant today. It confirms that effective communication is not just about speaking and listening; it’s about watching, feeling, our body language and tone of voice. For example slightly tilting ones head shows that you are listening as does slightly leaning forward (without invading their personal space, uninvited), smiling is a good way to praise a child or young person, making frequent eye contact is suggesting your availability (although not staring – this makes you look aggressive!), when talking and listening face the child or young person, get down onto their eye level, sitting across the corner of the desk because sitting on opposite sides suggest formality or conflict and sitting on the same side makes it tricky to have enough eye contact.
Active listening is an important requirement in any type of work with children and young people. It goes beyond just hearing what a child or young person has to say, it involves taking an interest in him/her, making sure they are supported and understood. It means really trying to step into their shoes and imagine how a situation looks through their eyes and how it feels to them. Seeing things from a child’s point of view is not easy but I saw this poem recently on Facebook (posted by a teacher friend of mine) and I think it really does a good job of helping us to understand how they really want to be listened to; it’s called “Listen” by Ralph Roughton, M.D.
“When I ask you to listen and you start giving advice, you have not done what I have asked. When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings. When I ask you to listen and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem, you have failed me, strange as it may seem. Listen! All I ask is that you listen: not talk or do – just hear me.”
So, effective active listening can include tips such as; not interrupting when he/she is talking or finishing their sentences, not changing their words to fit our own expectations, not disagreeing immediately when he/she starts speaking, not dismissing his/her feelings as unimportant, not changing the subject of the conversation and not jumping to conclusions but rather letting him/her express they thoughts.
Not only is listening and responding appropriately vital when it comes to building self-esteem and strengthening relationships but it can also support speech and language development, so being aware of our listening skills and habits at all times is a must for teaching assistants.
Not making assumptions, asking questions, clarifying any finer details and summarising and confirming the key points are all also necessary parts of effective communication and are key skills to have.
Avoiding assumptions can be achieved by checking your understanding of what a child or young person has said to you, for example paraphrasing the essence of his/her comments and identifying the most important details.
There are many forms of questions that can be used, such as open questions that answer the who, what, why and how details, closed questions that simply require yes or no answers, probing questions that follow a line of thought e.g. tell me more about, clarifying questions that require extra details to explain something further, fact finding questions that ask about a particular subject and follow-up questions that also get further information but also require take information from a subjective view.
Effective communicators always recap what has been said and agreed, i.e. summarise and confirm the key points.
Question 2.2: Explain how to adapt communication with children and young people for:
a) the age of the child or young person
b) the context of the communication
c) communication differences:
Not only do children and young people develop and learn in different ways but also at different rates, therefore when communicating with a child or young person we need to take account of his/her age and stage of development to ensure that our approach is appropriate. Being properly informed about his/her competence in speech, language and communication skills will ensure that we are.
Children of different ages will have various levels of attention and requirements, for example, younger children who are starting school will require lots of support, reassurance and require a lot of praise in order for them to adjust to a school environment and develop their independence. We can help with this by encouraging them to build up friendships with other children or children they may not usually associate with. When communicating with younger children it is essential that we are at the same eye level as the child because an adult towering over a child can seem very intimidating and may lead to a less confident child being reluctant to talk and using simple instructions broken down into manageable steps. With some very young children, even more basic forms of communication may be required to improve communication such as hands gestures, pictures or symbols. Continuing to use praise and encouragement for older children will help them to build upon their existing social skills but we also need to give older children the time they need to talk and articulate their views and opinions and showing them that you are interested in what they have to say will promote their development. Older children and adolescents still need to understand boundaries and expected behaviour even though those boundaries and expectations will have changed as they grow but you can begin to use humour with those who have reached that development stage and actively create opportunities for debate.
Besides the content and delivery of the message, there are other things that must be taken into account when communicating with children and young people. These are not part of what we are saying but rather relate to the framework, in other words the situation in which a message is delivered.
Communications must always be appropriate to where they take place or the environmental context, for example the classroom, the dinner hall, the school office or the playground, etc. The location of a conversation can have a great bearing on the direct it takes, for example, many younger children speak quietly so holding a conversation in a noisy dinner hall will be problematic or conversations in the playground should be of a more social nature rather than discussing the pupil’s class work.
The emotional context and his/her expectations of the interaction will also affect the communication. For example, you would use one style of communication to discipline a child and a totally different style to comfort a child who is upset.
Some children and young people are not able to verbally communicate clearly. This could be for any number of reasons, such as, a cognitive and/or learning difficulty, a communication and/or interaction difficulty, a sensory and/or physical impairment, behavioural, social or emotional developmental problems or English may not be their mother tongue (EAL). So in cases like these, it may be necessary to adapt the style of communication or use appropriate communication systems for example, Makaton, Sym-Writer, PECS, etc that meet their needs and abilities.
If a child or young person has difficulty in their speech or sound production, their attempts at communication can often be much harder to listen to than usual and may be tricky to understand with they are trying to say. Techniques such as ‘modelling’ (as long as you know what he/she is trying to say) and expanding sentences are useful supportive tools but you must never pretend to have understood what he/she has said because they will often work out that you are lying with could lead to him/her becoming frustrated and/or losing your trust. A simple “Sorry, I don’t understand” or asking him/her to point to what they are talking about is sometimes enough. Adapting communication if a child or young person is being supported by a speech and language therapist is usually much easier because the therapist will have lots of helpful hints, tips and suggestions for the school staff.
When dealing with children and young people whose first language is not English, up-to-date information about their home language and culture should be obtained so that you can support their language development while showing that you value their home language. As with any child or young person, ensuring that you are aware of the level of language skill that is appropriate for his/her age is a good starting point. Other techniques such as giving him/her as many opportunities as possible to interact using English (or Welsh if in a Welsh-Speaking school), showing them how to use the language by using it correctly oneself, using scaffolding techniques and, of course, using strategies agreed with his/her class teacher for introducing new words will support his/her to develop their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills.
Question 2.3: Explain the main differences between communicating with adults and communicating with children and young people:
A teacher at the school that I’m currently working in said to me that “Children are not just small adults; they have needs and abilities which are significantly different from those of adults”, meaning that the rules of communication between a child and an adult are very different from the rules that exist between two adults or indeed that of two children.
The main differences between communicating with adults and communicating with children and young people could include; style, language, the level of understanding, concentration levels, self expression and sensitivity to non-verbal behaviour.
For example, having a wide and varied range of communication styles will help when communicating with children and young people. Feeling comfortable with them and being able to engage in whatever style of communication best suits that particular child or young person, this could include sitting on the carpet and getting involved in play, etc while being able to tolerate expressions of distress, aggression, etc. in a positive way.
The language used to effectively communicate with children should be simpler and age appropriate rather than that used when talking with adults. They need to be spoken to in terms that they can easily understand and about concepts appropriate to their age, stage of development and culture. However, to encourage their speech and language development we should avoid over-simplifying language and using ‘baby talk’.
Working with children, you quickly appreciate that they often grasp a situation in a totally different way from adults; children fantasise, invent explanations for unfamiliar or frightening events, express themselves in symbolic ways, e.g. in drawings, play, behaviour, etc and worry about issues which may seem unimportant to adults so adjusting to a child or young person’s level of understanding is also needed when communicating effectively with them.
A further difference between communicating with children and young people is that the concentration span of a child, especially that of young children, is much shorter than that of an adult and so adapting to shorter conversations may be more effective than one long one!
I have come to appreciate that children are more likely than adults to convey their experiences using non-verbal indicators and that these gestures are clues to what they are really thinking or feeling, especially when it is difficult for him/her to put his/her ideas into words, however, studying child development earlier in this course and regular child monitoring and observations has helped grow my communication skills.
The out-dated saying, “Do as I say not as I do” springs to mind when thinking about the differences between communicating with other adults and communicating with children and young people; many children are more sensitive to our non-verbal behaviour, i.e. our body language, tone of voice and facial expressions, than the words we use.
So, in other words the main difference between talking to another adult and talking with a child or young person is that adults, usually come with prior knowledge and life experience, even some practical knowledge and have a greater understanding of concepts and a larger vocabulary too meaning that when adults communicate with each other, we have to make fewer adjustments in relation to understanding.
Question 2.4: Explain how to adapt communication to meet different communication needs of adults:
I was brought up knowing that communication of any sort should always be respectful and demonstrate good manners and etiquette, for example, as a teaching assistant, I address a pupil’s parent by their title, e.g. “Mr Bloggs, Mrs Smith or Miss Brown” never by their first name unless he/she had given me permission to do so and around the school, teachers, supporting therapists, etc are always addressed in a similar way, using their title in front pupils as this not only shows the adult in question due respect but also uses me as a role model for expected behaviour for the children.
Another way of showing respect is by using language that the adult you are communicating with will understand, for example, school jargon and abbreviations may be understood by other teachers and teaching assistants but not by the parent helpers or volunteers.
In addition to basic respect and good manners, as adults, we all have a preferred way of interacting and communicating with those around us. In my previous profession, I learned that communication will be more effective when you understand how an individual prefers to interact with others and tailor your style to suite those needs. The four interaction/communication styles are;
- Action oriented people who tend to be more pragmatic, direct, impatient, decisive, quick to jump from one idea to another and energetic.
- Process oriented people who tend to be more systematic, logical, factual, unemotional, cautious and patient.
- People oriented people tend to be more spontaneous, empathetic, warm, subjective, emotional, perceptive and sensitive.
- Ideas oriented people tend to be more imaginative, charismatic, difficult to understand, ego-centred, unrealistic, creative, full of ideas and provocative.
Knowing these four types helps me to adjust my approach, for example, an action person doesn’t want to hear lots of excuses or rambling on they usually just want the facts.
There is a myriad of reasons why some adults may find face-to-face communication challenging, such as those with physical disabilities and motor co-ordination problems because they can make the production of speech difficult or even impossible, adults with some types of learning difficulties can find it hard to produce speech or handle spoken language, difficulties with social interaction e.g. Asperger syndrome, difficulty with volume and quality of their voice, i.e. dysphonic, difficulty speaking fluently, e.g. stammering or stuttering, problems understanding what people say or choosing the right words to say, i.e. aphasia or difficulty speaking clearly without slurring, i.e. dysarthria.
So, for example, an adult will have different communication needs if they have a hearing impairment or is even deaf, we obviously can’t have verbal communication with them or speak to them on the phone without adapting our style. Effective communication would usually take place in a face to face situation or by letter, email or text message. When we do speak to them, we should speak clearly in case they can lip read. We may have to learn some basic sign language or bring in someone who can.
The communication needs of a parent who is visually impaired or blind will also be different; we know that they can’t see so communication will probably be primarily verbal. With adults who have visual impairment, they may be able to see but need larger print so the school I work in produce documents in larger print on request and have buttons on their website to make the text bigger so that it can be accessible. The school have also ensured that signs around the premises are in Braille too.
Communication will need to be adapted in situations where English is not a parent or guardian’s first language, whether he/she can only speak a few words or none at all, we still have to ensure that he/she is not excluded from important information because of it. For example, if he/she looks lost or looks like they did not understand what we said to them, we should repeat ourselves, speaking in clear language and include body language and gestures to empathise what we’re trying to convey. If necessary, we could get an interpreter to translate information into their local dialect and we could arrange to meet them if we feel the information is complicated.
It is also worth remembering, that adults too are unique individuals and may also suffer from shyness or feelings of intimidation when communicating with those they feel are superior to them just like the children and young people we work with.
So, by being aware of all of these potential communication issues, never making an assumption and treating people with the respect they deserve as well as adapting the communication style used that suits their needs, communications with adults should be just as effective as those with children and young people.
Question 2.5: Explain how to manage disagreements with children, young people and adults:
Clear and regular communication between parents, pupils and those who work with them is essential to build good relationships. Good communication, together with information and support will help to avoid disagreements or prevent them from escalating into more serious disputes, however, even when two people can talk and understand the same language, there are still lots of opportunities for misunderstandings, disagreements and failed communications and in a school setting conflicts are commonplace.
Dealing with conflict and disagreement effectively is half the battle and can even create positive outcomes, of course, the school that I currently work in have policy and procedure guidelines to follow in these situations but a senior teacher told me these simple points to remember too;
- There is no right or wrong, only opinion and viewpoints
- There are either facts or opinions
- All individuals must be treated equally – there is no difference due to age, sex, education, position in organisation, etc
- Each person is different and has the right to different opinions and views
- majority is not always right
All children and adolescents will experience situations where they feel that life is unfair and to begin with they rely on the adults around them to solve any disagreements and disputes that they have but the end goal is to teach them how to deal with conflicts themselves. Always giving in, shouting, hitting or being bossy never solves anything! Being assertive is behaving in a way which is neither aggressive nor passive but allows all involved to discuss their feelings and opinions in a calm way which will then allow for compromises to be made. Being empathetic to the other person’s point of view and their feeling and allowing both parties the time to speak will also help to smooth out conflicts, it usually also helps to see the ‘big picture’ for example if two children are squabbling over a hoola-hoop I would remind them that if there were two hoops they could both have one but suggest either they take it in turns, Child A plays first for a set time then Child B plays for the same set time and so on until playtime is over, or they make up a game together like using the hoop as horse’s reigns or having a hoola competition, asking if they can come up with any games… which puts the onus back on them to resolve their disagreement but hopefully in a more friendly and constructive way. Children and adolescents can learn these techniques when the adults around them model the behaviour when dealing with the pupils’ problems.
Disagreements at school between adults is all part of everyone’s working lives; they can arise over such things as; concerns about duties and responsibilities, disagreements about pupil behaviour, disagreements about management issues, clashes concerning different lifestyle choices or clashes between personalities, however, many of these conflicts can be resolved through open and honest discussion, using many of the techniques that we teach children and adolescents. The discussion could be an impromptu five minute chat in the staff room or involve arranging a mutually convenient time, and if the issue requires it, the class teacher and/or the Head Teacher may be asked to be present. For more serious issues I would refer to the school’s ‘Staff Handbook’ and/or the ‘Whistle-blowing’ policy and procedure.
My answers to the next question in this unit will follow…