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The Art of Nonverbal Communication

December 22, 2017

Communication allows us to connect with others through expressions of thought, feeling, and desire. We engage with actors on the big screen, empathize with characters in a gripping novel, and lament our friend’s pain as they share their struggles. The combination of words, tone, body language, and touch empower us to convey messages.

As young children begin to master the art of verbal communication, adults must provide them with the tools necessary to effectively communicate. Nowhere is this more important than in early childhood, when language skills are just emerging.

“Beginning from birth, non-verbal communication is the main way a child interacts,” shares Dr. Donna Housman, founder and CEO of the Housman Institute. “Our first language globally is that of emotion, and emotions inform and drive non-verbal communication,” says Dr. Housman.

Accurately reading body language, tone, eye contact, and personal space—all essential elements of non-verbal communication—is both innate and learned, Dr. Housman points out. Again, informing this non-verbal communication is emotion. As early childhood educators and caregivers, we can help young children improve the ability to communicate accurately and effectively laying the foundation for successful interactions.

Experts agree with Dr. Housman. Joe Navarro, author of the “Spycatcher” column from Psychology Today, recommends that adults begin to discuss non-verbal cues with children as young as two. He offers guidelines to do so, including: “what your body says to me is more accurate than what you say, and it speaks to me before you do.” Navarro’s tip again reiterating that emotions drive non-verbal communication. 

Early childhood represents a critical time where social and emotional learning must begin. Accordingly, the Housman Institute—a pioneer in early childhood education research and training—trains teachers to educate children from birth on how to both read these nonverbal cues and understand the expressed emotion behind said cues. Using the model of direction, modeling, guidance, and internalization, teachers lay the foundational building blocks for emotional competence.

Social and emotional instruction can be provided in a variety of ways – from in the heat of the moment (termed Causal Talk in the Emotional Experience by Dr. Housman), to discussing scenes in a book, or characters in a drawing—all allowing infants and toddlers to begin learning nuanced expressions imperative for communication.

The importance of reading non-verbal cues does not end in childhood. Rather, non-verbal communication remains a major means of interaction throughout life. Jenni Ogden, author of the column “Trouble in Mind” on Psychology Today, suggests that for children and adults, the ability to accurately “read” non-verbal cues can enhance understanding of messaging.

Mastering the art of non-verbal communication is a critical component of emotion competence—a construct vital for lifelong success. Given the importance of non-verbal communication during the lifespan, we must continue instilling these nuanced competencies beginning from birth.

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