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Communicating with young children is easy. it?

Updated: Jan 30


Just ask a child to do something, he does it

-Tell a toddler “Don’t hit,” they stop

-Announce it is snack time, and children come to eat.

Unfortunately, despite adults’ sincere efforts, young children still do not always listen and respond appropriately. At these times, adults may get caught in a dreaded power struggle as it is easy assume a young child is not listening or is being deliberately defiant.

Surprisingly, one hidden culprit behind children's refusals might be the way adults send the message in the first place! While working in an early childhood classroom and playing with a friendly three-year-old, I said "Want to help me put the Playdoh away?" She said, "NO!" I was so annoyed! But, when I rewound and considered my role in this interaction, I realized my faulty message. After all, didn't she simply answer the question I had asked her? When the question was calmly reframed into the statement "Let's put the Playdoh in the bin." she happily tucked every last piece away. Often, when children do not cooperate with our requests, it might actually be related to a child’s lack of understanding or confusion with the expectation behind the message.

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Communicating a clear message is actually a much more complex process than it first seems. During an exchange, a person gets an idea or picture, forms the idea into a verbal message, and then sends that message to another person. The receiver then decodes the message into their own picture. Unfortunately, many errors occur at any place in this process.

In fact, it is estimated that during adult conversation, approximately 40-60% of the original meaning gets lost. (This might explain why my Aunties are often arguing about what each said in past exchanges!) Now, throw in the developmental age and language capabilities of a two year-old, and you’ve got a vast potential for trouble.

Another issue? Children rely even more heavily on the nonverbal aspects because they lack experience and advanced knowledge of language. It is estimated that adults draw about 90% of meaning from nonverbal messages – tone, time, physical space, and visual cues (eye contact, posture, facial expression, eye movement, gestures.) Young children are often just responding to what the adult’s tone implies and adult’s body-language over the verbal message. When nonverbal and verbal messages conflict, adults and children alike “hear” the message they desire. Also, to succeed in school, children need to understand nonverbal and verbal cues, be able to listen, follow directions, and effectively communicate needs, wants, and thoughts. Many of the following techniques will reduce adult frustration and miscommunication and build important communication skills in young children.

There are numerous positive communication techniques adults can use to increase a young child’s understanding and the likelihood the child will cooperate. Read on or scroll to the end for additional videos and resources on this topic (with more being added so check back!)

*Get the child’s attention before speaking. It takes time for young children to shift attention away from an interesting activity. The educator at the table in this picture could endlessly repeat her direction to the boys playing trains. But, they are engrossed in their play! It will be a lot more efficient (and likely get her message across), if she takes the time to move to their area, get down at their level, gain eye contact, touch a child's shoulder, say child’s name, and then give the child a second to transition his thoughts. This will help avoid the long process of having to say something ten times with increasing volume and frustration before getting a response.

*Verbalize what you want the child to do. For a brief moment, try to visualize this.... The child is "not" jumping on the bed. "The ball is not bouncing." "The child is not hitting his friend." Most likely, you first visualized the action taking place, then tried to re-see it as you were asked. Children (like adults) are programmed "to do" so a "do not" instruction can be confusing. It is so much more difficult for our brains to follow a “don’t” instruction! This is why a tennis coach does not instruct an athlete, “Don’t miss the ball!” but encourages, “Keep your eyes on the ball.” Simply tell the child what to do: “Put your bottom on the seat” instead of “Don’t stand on the chair”; “Set the sand on the ground” rather than “Don’t throw sand.” It is much easier to follow a request that explains the action one should take and you may find this simple change brings about a cooperative turn in behavior.

*Set a positive tone. Children are always looking for verbal and nonverbal signs about what adults expect them to do. For example, when entering the grocery store, one parent might warn, “Don’t run around, stay by Mom or we are going straight home!” while another might say, “Let’s walk together and see if we can find everything on our list.” Each statement implies how the parent expects the child to behave and will likely result in those behaviors.

*Make requests clear. Say direct requests as a statement, not a question. Ask a three year-old, “Do you want to help me clean up?” The probable answer will be “no” as in my example above. After all, it is a question of what the child wants and who jumps for joy when asked to clean?! Invite a positive response with a simple, “Help me put the toys away.” or "Let's see how fast we can finish putting these trucks in the bin!" Also, be sure to avoid adding “okay?” at the end unless the child actually has a choice.

*Honor child’s wishes in fantasy. If you are in the grocery store line and the child says, “I want a candy bar.” Instead of just saying “no”, give it a fantasy spin: “I bet you wish you could have that candy bar. OOOH, that would taste good! Can you imagine if it was raining candy bars and you could just open your mouth and ummmm num – just eat every one!” This technique honors what the child is feeling and can help avoid a battle. See the video below for more ideas!

*Send multiple, clear and consistent messages. Make verbal and nonverbal actions consistent with the message you desire to send. Reinforce the message in a variety of ways; a picture or sign, model the behavior, and read books or watch videos that show the actions that are appropriate. Daniel the Tiger and Sesame Street are two shows that promote kind and caring behaviors. Check out these PBS videos, designed to help you reinforce the behaviors you want (and teach social-emotional development!) Research is clear, after watching these, children are more likely to follow the helpful behavior model. Check out this link that has a list of videos designed to teach social and emotional skills!When the child is making a mistake, such as a toddler pulling the family pet's fur, model gentle touches and show the child other things they can do when exciting (such as wave at the dog). The clearer and more consistent the message, the more likely the child will learn to do, or not do, certain behaviors.

*Talk with young children frequently. Build time into each day to discover something about the child. Really engage and listen attentively. Seek to understand and validate how the child thinks and feels. This will lead the child to feel connected, valued and respected, and increase the likelihood they will want to cooperate.

Communicating with young children isn’t easy. However, taking time to apply these communication techniques can help reduce adults’ frustration and increase positive and effective communication between adults and young children. What’s more, positive communication with adults helps prepare children to flourish in school and beyond.

This article was written by Raelene Ostberg, M.Ed., Thriving Together, LLC

This is an edited version of an article originally published in Rochester Women Magazine. Raelene is dedicated to developing and delivering engaging education series for early childhood educators in their critical work. To view a list of currently offered live webinars and self-paced learning opportunities with Raelene, visit


Helpful Communication Techniques & Resources to Encourage Gleeful Cooperation

To receive free coaching right here in Minnesota - Center for Inclusive Childcare

Tools to Build Relationships to Prevent Challenges

Have you Filled Your Bucket Today?

Helping Hands ideas from CSEFEL (Booknook for “Hands are Not for Hitting” with many other ways to teach the skills to prevent this challenge!) -

CSEFEL: Promoting Children's Success: Building Relationships and Creating Supportive Environments-


To view a list of currently offered live webinars and self-paced learning opportunities with Raelene, visit

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