In our second episode, Abi joins us on the podcast to chat about early communication. It’s more than just speech. Learn about the techniques and questions you can use to help your child develop their understanding of language, verbal and non-verbal communication.
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Fay – Welcome to the Bright Horizons Early Years Podcast. I'm Fay Banks and today I'm joined by Abi, one of our Early Childhood Specialists. Hi, Abby. Welcome to the podcast.
Abi – Hi, Fay! Thanks for having me today.
Fay – Thank you for joining us. So I'm really excited to chat with you today. But first, could you tell us a little bit about your role at Bright Horizons?
Abi – So I am fairly new to the Bright Horizons team, and I've been here for about four and a half weeks now. But my job role is Early Childhood Specialist, and the last few weeks I have been getting to know the teams, getting to know the nurseries. I work up in Canary Wharf, which is really exciting, and I have been shadowing other fabulous Early Childhood Specialists, and I'm really excited to get stuck in and get to know all the teams and all the nurseries really, really well.
Fay – Yeah, there are definitely quite a few people to meet here. What's it been like for you? You know, being new, settling in?
Abi – It's been really exciting, it's been really fun. My background is in teaching, and then I specialised in SEN in the Early Years, so I worked with a local council. So working with Bright Horizons is completely different. But honestly, it has been fantastic. The team has been so welcoming. I mean, it's really, really helped me to get a grip on what Bright Horizons do and how we help each child. Honestly, it's been a very busy month, but it's been really, really exciting and I’ve been learning a lot.
Fay – Well it definitely sounds exciting and we're very pleased to have you on board, both with Bright Horizons and on the podcast today.
Abi – Thank you.
Fay – So can you tell us what we'll be speaking about today?
Abi – So my – you might have guessed, I love to communicate. So my chosen subject is communication in the Early Years. And Fay, if I may, I'll just talk about the science behind it a little bit.
Fay – Go ahead.
Abi – So our brains are made up of billions of different connections between neurons. And it's these connections that give us the ability to function.
So in the first few years of life, more than a million of these connections are formed every second. So brains are built over time, but it is in the early years of the child's life that the foundations are laid. So communication is – as everyone knows – it's a crucial component in life, not just in early years, but you know, for us as well, being able to sit here and talk to each other and when you're meeting new people.
So not only is it vital for children's cognitive development but also their ability to forge and maintain relationships with those, the people and the world around them. So from the day they are born, children are communicating and this can be seen through cooing, reaching out, crying, of course. So the role of adults during this time period is hugely significant in helping to develop a child's ability to communicate with the world around them.
Fay – It's really fascinating that you mentioned that communication isn't just speaking because, you know, as adults, a lot of us that we tend to think, oh, communication, talking words, you know, reading, writing. But as you say, for babies and even adults, I suppose, there's that body language. There's that eye contact, reaching out. Sometimes we sigh or we make sounds and you can tell that we're communicating something, but we don't necessarily have to use words yet.
Abi – Absolutely. Absolutely. And I'm really glad you picked up on that. So non-verbal communication is just as important as verbal communication, how you communicate with others through your facial expressions, your hands… oh, you can’t see – it's on a podcast so people can't see me moving my hands around. But it is crucially important and it's really important that the people around children understand that when they are crying or laughing or before they're able to speak, it's really important that people understand that that is the way that they are communicating.
Fay – Yeah. So even if they aren't speaking yet, actually, they're still making those kinds of connections in their brain and it’s building the foundation for language later on.
Abi – Absolutely. You know, these little connections are being made every day. And sometimes when you talk to the child they'll remember something that you said ages and ages ago. And that's an example of how their brains are developing. It's fantastic to see.
Fay – I think it is incredible when children really young remember something really specific from a few weeks ago. I've got small children in my family who do the exact same thing and you’re like, how do you remember that? I can barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday!
Abi – Children are natural explorers, and they love to find out about the world around them. And that also means finding out about the people around them as well. You know, children do have good memories. And if it's important to them and it's something that they feel is important to you, they will bring it up and they will speak about it.
Fay – I think that's lovely, though, that you say they remember things that are important to them and if they think it's important to you. So showing that, you know, the early stages of forming relationships with people, you know, forming those friendships. Communication isn't just about saying… being able to say, “I need this for myself.” It's about that two-way communication with other people and forming those relationships.
Abi – Absolutely. Reciprocal conversations, whether they're verbal or non-verbal, are so, so important in the early years. And if your practitioner – the setting practitioner – if they have a really good response to your child, then your child is happy to go and speak to them. You know, we know as adults, if you're talking to someone and you can see them… you know, the non-verbal communication, they start to look away…
You know, they start to, you know, maybe listening but not active listening. They're not taking part in active listening. As adults, you maybe trail off. Maybe you don't want to talk to them any more about what you are speaking about.
Fay – So the children feel that as well?
Abi – Absolutely. Absolutely. Again, they're so receptive and they can understand, children are very sensitive to those around them. So we make sure that we are reciprocal. We ask the children questions. We ask them open-ended questions. So that's moving away from questions that only have a yes or no answer. It's getting the children to think about what they're saying, maybe recapping it, maybe summarising it for them. It's really being a part of the child's communication journey.
Fay – I love that tip of asking those open-ended questions and like you say, really getting away from just those yes or no answers.
Abi – Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.
Fay – So you mentioned earlier you said that our nursery environments are language rich. What does that mean in practice?
Abi – Well, all the Bright Horizons settings interpret it slightly differently. But what we make sure that every setting does is really celebrate, you know, the diversity of the children and the families that we work with, but also making sure that good basic language is put in place. I visited a nursery yesterday and they had, for example, a wonderful board and it had a map on it and it showed where every child from the nursery, where their families were from.
And then they had talking buttons or sound recorders with flags on them. And when you press it – it was fantastic, I was there for ages – when you press it, it said ‘hello’ in the different languages.
Fay – Oh wow!
Abi – Honestly, Fay, it was fantastic. But every nursery has something like that but just slightly differently. So, for example, we have in some settings, in Russian, if a child needs to go to the toilet, we have it in English and then we have it in Russian as well.
Fay – Yeah.
Abi – And we have the pronunciation too. So underneath the correct spelling we would have how you pronounce it. So we know that whatever language the children feel comfortable speaking, they are able to do that in our nurseries. And what we do as well is we invite families in, we invite grandparents or parents in if they are able to come in, and they can tell stories in that in their home language as well.
Fay – Oh I’ve seen this! It’s lovely.
Abi – Oh, it's wonderful. It's so, so lovely, isn't it? And sometimes the parents bring books in as well. But we also have, you know, on chairs, we might have the word chair, then we have it in the different languages with the different flags. Not only do they hear the different languages, they see them as well.
Fay – They see it. That, I think, is one of the biggest things; is having that kind of two-pronged approach – or more than that, probably. But the visual side of it and the audio side of it. And if you think, I mean, these children are coming into these settings almost five days a week. Some of them less so, but it's building up that familiarity with these different words and if you see something all the time, you remember it, don’t you?
Abi – Absolutely.
Fay – They might not speak fluent French when they leave our settings – well, probably not fluent French by the time they leave our setting – but they will remember that that's the French word for apple. So, you know, apple and ‘pomme’.
Abi – Oh, very good Fay!
Yeah, absolutely. And what’s really nice as well is that we celebrate the staff's diversity, too. So, you know, on the sound board, sometimes they’ll press it and they might hear you know, Toddler 2’s Room Leader saying the words in different languages.
Fay – It's amazing. And it's lovely to hear about all the things we have in the nursery to help with children's language and development. So in terms of at home, then, what can parents be doing to help their children with communication?
Abi – Oh, parents can do lots, and I'm sure all of our parents are doing it, are doing all this anyway. But it really is trying to be active listeners when your child is speaking. Take an interest in what your child is talking about, asking them open ended questions. You know, what was your most, what was your favourite part of the day? You know, asking them questions where the child can really develop their answers.
Also, it's being quite patient. Sometimes children, they take a little bit longer to process than adults do, so you might ask a child a question and then when they don't answer straightaway, you think, ‘Oh, I’ll just move onto the next bit’, or maybe you’ll prompt them. But actually, it's giving children the space to formulate an answer in their head, because being able to speak is a fantastic skill, but there is a lot of work that goes in before that.
And then when they do answer, it’s being able to respond appropriately to them. If they say something funny has happened in their day, laugh. If, you know, if they seem a little bit worried about something, you know, it's giving them the space and giving them the tools as well to talk about what might have happened.
Fay – Yeah.
Abi – Another thing that we sometimes find parents speak to us about is if their child is reluctant to speak. And we do have that. You know, sometimes we have adults that actually don't – just don't want to talk that much. But if your child is reluctant to speak, there are lots of things you can do. For example, you could give your child… it sounds awful, the actual name for it is a forced alternative.
But what it means is giving your child essentially maybe two choices. And they have to choose, be it verbally or non-verbally, what they want. So if you are giving them fruit, for example, you could say, ‘Do you want the apple?’ and you hold the – again, you can't see what I'm doing but I'm using my hands – you have the apple in one hand and you say, ‘apple’, or, ‘do you want the banana?’ really stressing the single words.
You can even just hold out in turn, the apple and then the banana. And if your child isn't speaking… I know, I know, it sounds so – it sounds like a little bit silly, but I promise you, honestly, it does work. This is tried and tested speech and language therapy technique.
Fay – Ooh.
Abi – So if your child doesn't want to speak, they may just move their head, they may move their eyes, they may reach out for something, but acknowledge what your child has done. If your child has reached out for the banana, then you can use the opportunity to say to them, ‘Oh, you have chosen the… banana,’ and then make sure that you do give them it afterwards as well, because they have to understand that communication can be used as a means to be getting what they want.
Another thing parents can do at home for children is to mirror the language-rich environments that we create within the Bright Horizons settings. So I'm not saying go around and label every single object in your home, but having posters up, having lots of different books, reading a book to your child at night, these are all fantastic things you can do to help to develop your child.
And not only their ability to communicate, but holistically as well, your child as a whole, will love reading the story with you, you know, at the end of day before they’re going to bed, they'll love doing that. Yeah. So if you have posters up in the room as well, it’s the child just seeing different words and different pictures and like I said, keep saying it, children are sponges.
And as well, what we do in Bright Horizons, in the settings, if you go into a nursery, you will hear singing, poetry, storytelling. You'll hear conversations between the children and the adults as well. And it's mirroring this again at home. So, you know, you might want to ask your nursery setting, ‘what things have you sung today?’ and ‘what themes are they doing?’
Because, you know, maybe they've got different themes, they've got different songs for different topics that they're doing. And it might be something that you want to do at home as well. Of course, you can look up all these songs as well online, but there's no…
Fay – It's nice to have a connection, isn't it, with a child? So, you know, it's good to have a variety of different songs, but if you're then singing something with them that they were singing in nursery, it's that repetition. They're remembering, ‘Oh, you know, I know this song’, and they can sing along with the words.
Abi – Yeah, definitely. And then if there's actions as well that, you know, the non-verbal communication too, it's really getting words out there in lots and lots of different ways and lots of fun ways. Because it's fun to communicate! So yeah, you know, really incorporating as much… words, songs, poems and really getting the language-rich environment at nursery as well as at home.
Fay – Yes, so making the environment as rich as possible.
Abi – Oh, I think I missed about recapping a child's ideas back to them.
Fay – Yes, yeah, absolutely. We'd love to hear about that as well.
Abi – So, at home when your child is speaking to you, it’s really important at the end, when your talk has finished speaking, that you make sure the child understands that you have listened to them and that you've heard what they've said.
So this can take place, through different forms, for example, you might want to summarise what they've said. If they are telling you about this story that happened at lunchtime, summarise what they said. And the child will then know and understand that you listened to them and you've understood what they've said.
And that's really important in getting the child to gain confidence in speaking, because if they know that when they've spoken to you, they've made sense, they’ll probably do it again. They’ll probably speak to you again the next day about something else fun that's happened.
But also, you know, it’s offering information or asking the child to help with something. You know, if you’re trying to set the table, children love setting the table. You can say, you know, ‘I’m not sure how to do this. How can I do this?’ Ask the child for help. And then you could say, you know, ‘When I set the table, this is sometimes how I do it.’ And you might want to set the table in a silly way.
And then the child will offer their support. Children love to help their adults and they love to feel appreciated. So it's tapping into what your child likes to do, and really encouraging them. And, you know, when they have supported you and they have helped you, praise them. Do praise them.
Because the children work so hard every day, do offer lots of praise and say well done, and you know, talk to your child’s setting as well. ‘What fantastic things have they done today?’ Bring it up later on in the day. You know, ‘Your nursery teacher said X, Y and Z.’ Bring it up and tell them, show them how proud you are with them, because they do so much every day that we should be proud of and the children should be proud of themselves as well.
You know, seeing the children develop and, you know, all this great communication taking place in every room, in every setting. It's wonderful to see.
Fay – Oh, well, I'm really happy that you're settling in, into the company and into your role. And yeah, it's been really wonderful talking to you today. I have definitely learned a lot so thank you for teaching me some more about early communication. And yeah, thank you for coming along to record today.
Abi – Oh, thank you very much for having me, Fay. It’s been really, really nice speaking about this with you.
Fay – It definitely has, and thank you to those of you listening at home. We look forward to seeing you on the next one.