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Communication is a fundamental necessity of everyday life; it helps to build positive relationships, as feelings get expressed, views and knowledge are exchanged, ideas are shared and explained. If the early childhood setting is language rich - with stories, books, songs and discussions – children will develop into effective and successful communicators. Communication can occur in many different ways – the most straightforward and direct being verbal communication. But most communication comes across as non-verbal, through body language, gestures, and tone of voice, emotional reactions, and facial expressions or through symbols, like sign language, words or pictures. It is in the early childhood setting, where children learn the necessary skills to become successful communicators.
To understand the importance of effective communication in early years, it is important to look at the development of language and communication skills. Communication starts from birth between the infant and the mother or the primary caregiver. The infant has to communicate to get his/her meets met and to maintain interaction with the primary caregiver. The website zerotothree states, that “Babies communicate from birth, through sounds (crying, cooing, squealing), facial expressions (eye contact, smiling, grimacing) and gestures/body movements (moving legs in excitement or distress, and later, gestures like pointing.)” Ideally adults will respond to these cues in a positive manner and lay the foundation to effective, two-way, pre-language communication. “Attentive caregivers, who respond to these early communication attempts, encourage infants to continue to explore language use” (Nixon & Gould, 1999, p. 85). By smiling back at a baby or responding to their cries, needs and wishes, the early childhood educator encourages the infant to interact. Responding to the infant’s needs sends the message that his/her communication attempts are understood and acted upon, which will encourage the child to send more signals. To further show the importance of early communication between the infant and a caregiver it is helpful to look at the different babbling sounds of hearing and deaf infants: the babbling sounds of hearing infants are more varied and cover a wider range than the sounds of a deaf infant. This indicates that being able to hear encouraging sounds of adults plays a significant role in the development of sounds (Nixon & Gould, 1999). Barbara Bowman, Phd (2002) extends on this knowledge by pointing out, that infants only remember the sounds that they hear in their language environment and if they don’t hear them, they lose the capacity to make certain sounds. This explains why it is harder for adults to learn a new language than it is for young children. Furthermore, if early childhood educators respond positively to infants’ cues, they teach the basis of creating satisfactory, caring relationships in later life. Children that experience positive communication with a primary caregiver in the early years, are more likely to become successful learners, as they are more secure, willing to explore and are able to control their feelings better. Studies have also shown that positive communication with teachers enables better learning and faster reading skills in children (Bowman, as cited in urbanedjournal, 2002). The stage of babbling will make room for single words, which will soon develop into telegraphic speech and from here on the child will master all elements of language and communication. The most critical phase for later success in school starts from three years on. This is when coaching and the use of language by adults gets most essential to help the child adapt to school life and to the challenges of learning (C. & S. Ramey, as cited in Plain Talk, 2004, p.9).
It is essential to take early childhood theories into account, when discussing the importance of an effective and attentive caregiver in a child’s life. Nixon and Aldwinckle (2003) argue that theories of learning explain the development of language through imitation and reward. Children imitate what they hear and they get rewarded for the imitation by their caregivers. Children then remember the reward and link the new word to an object or a situation. They also make connections between a word and an object or a situation. If they touch a hot oven and their mother says “hot”, they will remember the word “hot” as stinging and painful. It is therefore important to have an adult name objects and situations in the child’s environment to provide the opportunity to copy, link and get rewarded. As a child gets older the use of words gets refined and grammar is used according to the language used in his/her direct environment – which proofs the importance of effective communication between caregivers and children. Furthermore, by adults constantly providing children with feedback about grammatical mistakes, they enrich the child’s language development and encourage correct use of grammar. This feedback is divided in two different methods: “expansion and recast”. Expansion focuses on the adult expanding on two-word sentences of children and role modeling a full sentence with the same content. Recast is the motion where the adult picks up on grammatical mistakes and corrects them immediately (Vialle, Lysaght and Verenikina, 2008, p. 104). Looking at the theories of Vygotsky and Piaget – as seen in Nixon and Aldwinckle (2003) – they both believed that interactions between the child and the environment are essential for the shaping of language, as language is used in a social setting. Vygotsky especially emphasises the need of a good role model with good communication skills in a child’s life (p. 159-162). Interactionist theories emphasise on the role of interactions to learn language skills. Vialle, Lysaght and Verenikina quote that, “Communication is the major and primary function of language and it is within communication and for communication that language initially develops” (2008, p. 105). The skill of successful language use results from language rich environments with lots of verbal and social communication experiences.
Although communication is mostly connected to the use of language, there are many more facets to it. Communication occurs in many forms; it can be verbal or non-verbal and both of these forms can be very powerful. “They include looks (scowls and smiles), actions (slaps and hugs), silence (warm or cold), as well as words (kind and unkind)” (University of Maine, 2004). Looking at the common believes that children copy what they see and not what they hear, it is arguable, that in certain situations, non-verbal communication might be more powerful to a child. For example, if a caregiver praises a child, but has an angry facial expression it will send mixed messages to the child. “Communication contributes multiple messages, weaving a psychological and cognitive environment that creates a ‘special space’ for a child. The quality of this ‘special space’ for the child depends on verbal messages (both covert and overt), the tone of voice they hear, the body language and facial expressions they see, and the emotional reaction they feel in response to the interaction” (Jennifer Evans, 2009). This shows that communication has to be effective and consistent to have the desired outcome, as everything else might confuse the child and set the wrong basis.
To further emphasise on effective communication, it is helpful to look at different studies that look at the effects of effective communication in later life. Hart and Risley, as quoted by Rosenkoetter and Barton, conducted a study with 42 different families and researched their cultural and social backgrounds, as well as their use of communication with their children. Independent of their social or cultural status, some parents would communicate a lot, some less. The study has shown, that all children eventually learned to speak and communicate, but the children that were spoken to excessively by their parents, did better in later school life: they had better use of vocabulary, better use of grammar and their overall school performance was higher (2001, p. 3). Professor Iram Siraj-Blatchford further extends on this with his theory of “shared thinking”. He defines shared thinking, as a situation in which the teacher and the child collaborate to find a solution to a problem or a concept. He states that, “Sustained shared thinking is strongly associated with high-quality teaching and learning for young children” (2005) and children who get exposed to this collaboration in early years, are more likely to succeed in life and school.
In conclusion, effective communication is essential in early childhood settings. Children’s development of language is based on different factors, but effective two-way communication is one of the most important. Children learn by observing and imitating their environment and thrive in language rich settings with lots of stimulation from social and language interactions. The early childhood teacher should always be aware of his/her important role in a child’s life; s/he should always be attentive and a good role model. Effective communication builds the foundation of positive relationships and the desire to explore. This will again build the foundation for successful and confident students in later life. Effective communication in early childhood also lays the basis for better personal communication skills and a positive self-esteem. Modern day success is measured on good literacy and speaking skills, as well as good expressional language. By providing effective communicational environments in the early setting, teachers help children to develop into successful and valuable members of society.
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