Conversation is what connects us all together. Holding a conversation with your child is also one of the most gratifying and rewarding parts of being a parent or caregiver!
At it's core, conversational exchanges are the natural, back-and-forth flow of communication between two people. If one person makes a comment, or asks a question, the other person responds appropriately. We want conversation to be two-sided, with both people actively listening and engaged (as opposed to one person dominating the conversation). When each person is contributing to the conversation, connections form and relationships develop. Conversation can happen with a variety of people, and in a variety of settings. There are many aspects of conversation that fit nicely together in order to make the exchange flow smoothly.
Child learn to hold more mature conversations the same way they develop their speech and language skills: by absorbing information around them and interacting daily with parents, loved ones, and peers.
Take a minute and think about your child’s current conversational abilities. If conversation is difficult for them, there are many tips and techniques you can use to promote these skills! Let’s get started and help make your child the confident communicator they were made to be!
Most conversations start with some kind of greeting. A simple “Hi!” or “Hey friend!” communicates to another person that we are wanting to speak to them. While this may sound obvious to you and me, it can take some practice for children to realize that this is how conversations are initiated.
If your child struggles with greeting others, this can be a large roadblock in conversation skills. Fortunately, there are many ways to help your child work on greetings in a variety of ways.
You can take your child to the park or the library and let them practice greeting other peers their age. You could also give your child a simple challenge to say "hello" to five new people at school that day. Make sure to give your child lots of encouragement along the way. This task can feel a little scary for some children, especially for those that are naturally shy! You’ll want to be sure that your child recognizes just how hard they are working.
Beyond the initial greeting, some children struggle to fully initiate a conversational exchange. Review some general opening questions that your child can use to start talking with a friend. Here are some examples below:
- “How are you?”
- “How was your weekend?”
- “How’s your day going?”
You can also practice some conversation starters specific to where your child is throughout their day. If your child is at school, they could practice asking their friends questions related to a shared activity. It could be something like, “What did you think of our last test?” or “What did you bring for lunch today?” Brainstorm some questions your child can keep tucked away to use whenever they are in different settings and communicating with different people.
Another helpful tip is to role play with your child. Pretend that you're their friend or teacher and practice having them ask these questions. Practicing together in a safe place helps build confidence in their conversation abilities!
Make Connected Comments
Speech flows smoothly in conversation when comments and questions are all linked together. For example, if a child is talking to one friend about their last soccer game, and the other child responds with a comment about their favorite food, that comment is not on topic. It can make the conversation feel choppy, and the other person may be unsure how to respond.
Topic maintenance is one of the most important unspoken rules of communication, and also vital to a child's social language development. When we speak with other people, we expect that they will engage and respond to the topic presented, as opposed to going off in another direction and talking about whatever comes to mind.
Spend some time talking with your child and pay attention to their comments. If staying on topic during a conversation is challenging, check out this lesson on topic maintenance for additional tips and tricks to practice.
Be sure to practice this important skill with your child routinely. If their skills improve with you, then you can assume your child is equipped to engage in focused conversations with others. However, it’s true that you won't always be side-by-side with your child observing their conversations with friends. And that’s completely okay! This independence is a good thing (plus, children likely won’t want their parents coaching them through conversations with their friends). Just give your child frequent opportunities to socialize with their peers, and trust that they are applying what they’ve learned.
A big part of a child's expressive language is their ability to answer questions. We answer questions everyday - for social purposes (such as when a friend asks how we are doing), for functional purposes (such as telling somebody what we would like to eat), and even for emergency purposes.
Another road bump that may cause some problems with ease of conversation is the ability to answer questions. Some children can have trouble understanding how to answer different types of questions. Many times these questions begin with What, Where, When, Why, and Who.
As you speak with your child, pay attention to how they answer questions. Here’s an example of a conversation and an incorrect response that could happen:
If you ask your child, “Who did you eat lunch with at school today?” but your child replies with, “I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” then likely your child thought you were asking “What” they ate for lunch and did not understand you were asking “Who” they ate with.
Children frequently mix up questions like these. Spend some time practicing "WH" questions in non-conversational activities so that your child can learn what type of response is suitable when asked each specific type of question. Over time, you can build the difficulty level to conversational activities.
Check out this article on Expressable Academy for extra ideas on how to target and practice each type of "WH" question.
Did you know that conversational skills can improve without even saying anything at all? That’s a weird thought, isn’t it? The truth is that so much of what we communicate is not said verbally, but rather through nonverbal body language.
It's important to be able to decipher nonverbal communication correctly. This allows us to understand the meaning of what someone is trying to say, even if they don't outright say it. Picking up on nonverbal cues is a social skill that some kids need extra help learning.
Here is a quick list of body language that promotes positive conversation and interaction:
- Good eye contact
- Nodding head in agreement
- Facing the conversation partner
- Limiting distractions (i.e. Not checking our phones or looking around)
Implementing this type of body language allows the conversation partner to feel like they are being listened to and appreciated. That in itself can make a conversation flow very nicely!
For some quick practice with your child, review the importance of nonverbal language. You can even show your child the opposite of these positive nonverbal examples of body language. For example, when speaking with your child you can try turning away, not providing good eye contact, crossing your arms, always checking your phone, etc. Then, check in with your child and have them identify what you did wrong during the conversation.
To increase the challenge, combine negative body language with positive verbalizations and see if your child can spot the difference. For example, you can tell your child “I had a great day” but say it with a frown. Then ask your child "do you think I really mean I had a good day?" Hopefully they will catch on and be able to accurately identify the true meaning of your statement. This can be a silly but effective way to really drive this point home! You can check out more tips on teaching body language here.
The time you spend helping your child improve their conversational skills will stay with them for the rest of their lives! Right now your child’s conversations are mostly spent with family members, teachers, and friends. But as they grow older, these foundational conversation skills will follow them as they make their way through life and into professional settings.
Children who are good communicators grow into adults who are good communicators. Don’t forget that! So if you feel your child may need a little boost in this area, start implementing these tips today!