When and priorities to address needs and competencies.

When communicating with children and young people we should be aware of their age and their current level of communication skills.

It must be clear what kind of communication we can expect from a child of a certain age (for example, only simple words, phrases, or sentences following grammatical rules, etc.). Also, we need to understand what they will be able to comprehend from what we say to them. In fact, quality communication with children/young people should support the existing development programmes and priorities to address needs and competencies. Therefore, we must consider children’s different abilities and needs at different ages, and thus must be child-centred and age-appropriate. Children learn best when communication is adapted to their specific developmental age/stage and needs. Good-quality and effective communication begins with an understanding of the basics of child development.

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As teaching assistants, we should consider the specific strengths and interests for each age group when making our choices in selecting storylines, characters and content. Fundamental to each group is the identification of the level of conceptual understanding, with progressive age groups able to comprehend more complex content and contexts. Children of different ages have various levels of attention and requirements than that of an older child.

With young children who are starting school, it is advisable to use one-word instructions or only simple sentences; they require support and reassurance in order for them to adjust to a school environment and develop their independence. We can help with this by encouraging them to build up positive relationships with other children. When communicating with young children it is essential to be at the same eye level as the child. It is important to use very simple instructions and when they form short sentences without grammatical indicators (for example, missing plural), we can show our comprehension by repeating the sentence in the correct form, which also facilitates their language development. With some children, alternative forms of communication may be required to improve communication; hands gestures, pictures or symbols. Older children still need to understand boundaries and expected behaviour; they also require encouragement, praise and approval to improve their social skills. Therefore, we need to give older children time to talk and express their views and opinions and it is vital that they feel we are interested in what they say. Older children, who can already form sentences using correct grammar, can benefit from the introduction of new vocabulary and more complex sentence structures when conversating with adults (Kamen, 2011).

According to Kolucki and Lemish (2011), communication should be age-appropriate, child-friendly and child-centred. Below are some principles and guidelines that teaching and non-teaching practitioners can use to help ensure that communication is as effective as possible.• For children from birth through 6 years of age, we should use simple language with descriptive and sensory words, repetition, rhythm and songs, as well as animal and human characters.• For children 7- to 10-year-old, we can discuss stories about friendships, new skills or talents, daily occurrences that are opportunities for growth as well as testing values and critical thinking skills.

• For adolescents 11 through 14 years of age, we need to reinforce positive role models with high moral standards, tell stories about balancing the influence of family, friends and media, non-pedagogical formats and guidance in helping channel the need for experimentation and independence into healthy life choices.• For all age groups, we should produce effective communication that invites children to see, imagine, hear and create things that they would not have thought about previously.When communicating with children and young people, one of the most important aspect to take into account is the identification of meaningful situations or contexts to promote communication and social interaction. In fact, the context of communication makes up different ways to engage and interact with communication. Having to deal with children in a variety of situations can be difficult but being able to change according to whichever situation we find ourselves in when with children or young people, gives us the opportunity to build positive relationships with them.According to Light and Drager (2012), there are three main types of appropriate contexts: 1) those that are motivating for the children; 2) those that provide new opportunities for communication;3) those appropriate to the child’s development.Young children are most likely to talk, interact, and learn if they are doing something they enjoy. For example, infants enjoy games like peek-a-boo, playing bye-bye games, or “raspberries”.

Toddlers enjoy singing songs or looking at books. Preschoolers instead, enjoy imaginative play with cars, dolls, puppets, or action characters. Young children are most likely to learn new skills if they have lots of opportunities to use these skills.Children are innately curious about other people and are naturally drawn to social interactions.As teaching assistants, we can think about social activities that children might enjoy at school and that can be sustained for several turns.For example, singing songs, reading books, imaginative play with toys and other games.

These are excellent activities for learning new communication skills, and to practice skills previously introduced. With older children we need to adapt learning activities to their communication skills, so that they are age appropriate as well as developmentally appropriate. In a situation such as a learning activity or a group task, it is important that the children are focused and can work without any distraction to complete the activity. The learning material provides context and topic for communication between the adult and the children. During these activities, our communication with children/young people should be formal and proficient as we are in the educational environment; the pupils learn to focus to the topic of the communication and with the help of the teacher/teaching assistant, they try to exclude distractions. Social interactions in the breaks between lessons instead, provide opportunity for the teaching assistant to build positive relationships with the pupils but stay in a professional manner. These informal conversations are like those children have at home with their family during dinner. Therefore, they provide an excellent opportunity for the adults to get to know the pupils in a more relaxed way.

In whatever context and occasion of conversation, teaching assistants must keep in mind their caring role; therefore, their communications with the children should be professional. Every statement or instruction must be clear and unambiguous to avoid prejudice or favouritism. Constant checking for understanding ensures that the children receive communication appropriate for their age and abilities. Physical contact may help to redirect the child attention towards the activity and also show our empathy, but we should minimise its use to occasions when contact is really needed and meaningful. We need to adapt our behaviour and communication accordingly, assessing the situation and the environment we are in. It is important that children feel secure in every situation and have a sense of value from practitioners.When building positive relationships with children and young people we need to consider also the possibility of communication differences and barriers which can lead to many difficulties.

Communication difficulties can be caused by: • children’s communication development is impaired in some way;• practitioners and children don’t share the same spoken language; • practitioners do not understand children/young people because: they don’t know them well enough or they are making assumptions about them.Therefore, when working with children and young people with communication difficulties, it is vital to ensure patience and understanding as they will need to take more time and feel unpressured while speaking. For example, we may work with children who are growing up in a home where their first language is different from the language spoken in their educational setting. As they develop, they are likely to become quickly bilingual; however, if we don’t understand their home language, we may have some difficulties understanding their attempts to communicate. We may also work with children who experience hearing or speech impairments, either temporarily or permanently. Difficulties in communication development can have various effects on other aspects of development. Children who experience barriers or difficulties in their communication development, are likely to find it difficult to form relationships, struggle to understand basic concepts, and encounter emotional and behavioural difficulties. Consequently, they could feel anxious or nervous when trying to say something, so it is important that we try not to speak for them or guess what they are trying to say as this may add to their anxiety.

For children with speech and language difficulties, using resources such as PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), a form of alternative communication which uses pictures instead of words, can be extremely useful. A child who cannot hear or understand what is being said to them is likely to become confused, and this may lead them to become angry or withdrawn. Children who cannot express their feelings or what they need, may be the cause of frustration. Working as teaching assistants, we can do a great deal to help children/young people who have communication difficulties. This may involve extending our skills, so we would be able to communicate in sign language or by using Makaton, a language system which uses signs and symbols and enables people who cannot speak or write to communicate.

The signs are mostly black and white pictures which convey meaning more easily than words, which are more abstract. Also, we may encounter children whose development is on the autistic spectrum; these children have difficulties forming social relationships. Their inability to relate to others, affects learning and development of their communication skills. Their poor communication skills ultimately delay their ability to form social relationships. About 5% of children stammer when they are learning to talk.

Stammering, also known as stuttering, generally affects more boys than girls, and it usually emerges between the ages of two and five, when children’s language skills are developing. Girls are more likely to recover as they get older. Stammering can have physical or emotional causes, but often there is no clear reason. Scientists believe that children who stammer are no more anxious that others. However, they may become anxious because of their stammer and there is some evidence to suggest they may be more sensitive than other children. When communicating with children we should never rush them into to finish quickly what they’re trying to say. As teaching assistants, we need to be gentle, supportive and patient; this will give them the confidence to manage their stammer when speaking.