Changing Colors: The Blog of Spectrum Pediatrics

December 12, 2016

Nonverbal Language: What is it and why is it important?

By: Jamie Hinchey, MS, CCC-SLP
  • Nonverbal language starts from the moment a child is born.
  • There are many different forms of nonverbal communication including eye contact, gestures, body language, and facial expressions.
  • Young babies respond to nonverbal communication from their parents starting at a young age.

We have talked about receptive and expressive language, but nonverbal language often gets mixed in with that conversation. As a speech therapist with young children, I often find myself speaking with parents about the way their 2-month old is attempting to communicate. Many parents are confused by this and often ask “How is my child communicating without words?”. When talking about a newborn baby, a recent study found that there are two forms of nonverbal cues for infants and toddlers: engagement and disengagement cues. Engagement cues often include eye contact towards the caregiver, smiling, reaching for the caregiver, or eyes wide open. Disengagement cues could include crawling away, lack of eye contact, or hands over eyes. Eye contact is often included in this conversation, since this is a very powerful way for a child to communicate with their caregivers from the time they are born. As this child grows, eye contact is expected to continue to grow and develop into an effective form of communication.

As your child develops, their nonverbal language may become more obvious. This is the stage prior to developing words, but the need to communicate their wants and needs is important. Fore example, a baby sitting in their highchair may wipe their hands on the tray or throw their food to communicate that they are all done. When their parent takes the food away or gives more, that child is starting to learn how to effectively communicate. As your child enters their toddler years, they may start to link these nonverbal communication skills with words. We know that it is easier for toddlers to learn large motor movements (reaching, pointing) than more fine motor skills such as making sounds or words. With this in mind, toddlers may rely on nonverbal language to communicate their basic wants and needs. Some of these skills may be obvious such as a child pointing to an object that they want such as a food item. This may come before the child can use the word to specifically request that food. Another common form on nonverbal language I see is when a child pulls their parent over to the kitchen to show them that they are hungry.

Throughout my therapy sessions, I work with families on a variety of different strategies to help build nonverbal language before expecting the child to use their words. We typically see this nonverbal communication continue throughout toddler years, into elementary school, and even into adolescence/adulthood. While working with children 0-3, I encourage parents to give choices to encourage their child to use their nonverbal skill of pointing or reaching. This is teaching the child that they must do something in order to get something. I often coach the parents on ways to link these nonverbal language skills with words/sounds. For example, as your child is pointing to their preferred food item, label the item that they are pointing to.

For more information on expressive and receptive language check out our post here!

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