Multimodality and Communicating with Children

This was a “journal” assignment I completed for ENGL306F:  Semiotics (uWaterloo Fall 2012).

About a year ago I had a part time job as an assistant in an ECE classroom. One of the things I found most interesting about this job was the ways I was taught/learned to communicate.  Four- and five-year-olds often don’t see someone’s underlying motivations for their communication the way some adults do, so it was very important in that job that my speech, body-language, tone of voice, actions, and so forth were all communicating one unified message.  For example, if I were to tell a child, “I’ll read you that story in five minutes,” and then go on to other tasks without following through on that intention, that child would be disappointed.  When this happened, the children would often come back and remind me of their request and my promise, but a very shy child might feel uncomfortable raising the issue, and my slip of memory might thus result in a miscommunication.

Another example is that if a child with a very strong personality was exhibiting difficult behaviour, perhaps demonstrating that they heard an instruction, but refusing repeatedly to acknowledge or comply with the instruction, I might combine spatial/tactile communication along with my verbal communication.  This might mean squatting down to match the child’s eye level (I would often do this for routine communication as well), and if that didn’t have an effect, putting my hands on the child’s shoulders and asking them to look at me.  (I tried to be careful about demanding eye contact though, since uses of eye contact vary across cultures.  That was one thing I felt my supervisor could have been more mindful of in her communications with the kids.)  By contrast, if a child was sad I might use a tactile cue like a hug; if they were happy, I would smile and use tactile and verbal cues to communicate that I shared that happiness with them.

I would also make sure to speak a little more slowly and clearly than when speaking to an adult to give the children time to process my message.  Some of the children had advanced speaking skills and knowledge of English and didn’t need me to do this, but it seemed to help clarify my communication with many of the kids, especially if English wasn’t their first language.

At the school where I worked, I was taught to use certain words and phrases to help communicate a precise meaning that emphasized the children’s agency and the age-appropriate level of responsibility that accompanied it.  For example, instead of saying, “That’s bad,” or, “Don’t do that,” I was taught to say, “That is not ok,” or, “I don’t like the choice you are making.”  Altering my tone, facial expression, and body language helped make these statements gentler or sterner, as the context required (i.e. a child making a rude joke would probably get a gentler response from me, while one child hitting another would get a stern response).

As identified above, the main modalities I used in my communication with the children were wording, tone of voice, speed and clarity of speech, facial expression, body language, spatial cues, and tactile cues.