From the Heart the Mouth Speaks



Child: “Why don’t we pray for the West Coast?”


Mom: “We do, sweetheart. We pray for the whole world.”


Child: “But at church, we say,

‘In the name of the Father, the Son

and the whole East Coast.'”


Peter Smith, a specialist in children’s literature and learning skills, tells about the time he took his preschool daughter to a dairy farm. She watched intently as the cows were milked by the milking machines. Mr. Smith was very pleased that his daughter would now have a head start when she got to school, having learned about the farm.

But a few weeks later, Mr. Smith found that his daughter hadn’t quite understood. As he reminisced about the dairy farm with his daughter, she commented, “Those cows sure drink a lot of milk.” She had thought the milk was going into the cows instead of coming out.

As an exercise in communication, read the following dialogue. If you have trouble, read it aloud slowly.




O S A R.






O S A R.

C M B D I’S?





O S A R.






O S A R.




Did U C? Sometimes children find our communications with them as confusing as the above exercise may have appeared at first glance. Let’s see what we can do to make sure we communicate as clearly as possible.


Non-Verbal Communication

Misunderstandings happen, even among adults, of course. While clarity in communication can be critically important, it’s usually no big deal. But since we’re in the business of communicating, let’s look at ways we can increase our chances of being understood.

First of all, we should realize that most of our communication is done without words. We communicate through our tone of voice. Try saying, “I love you” in a sarcastic tone of voice. What will that communicate to the listener? People believe our tone of voice more than the words we speak.

Another factor in communication is body language. Tightly folded arms indicate a protective, impatient, or defensive attitude. Droopy shoulders spell discouragement. For communicating with a child, good body language includes getting on the child’s level so you can literally “see eye to eye.” A gentle, friendly pat on the arm or shoulder can also help.

Then there are facial expressions. A smile can indicate welcome and warmth. Tightly closed lips and clenched teeth give away anger.

A UCLA researcher, Albert Mehrabian, did a study to see just how important these non-verbal cues are in our communication. He found that 50% of our communication comes from what people see when we talk to them: our body language, gestures, and even our appearance. Our tone of voice communicates 38% of what they hear. Only 7% of what we communicate comes through our actual words, the content of what we say.



Stop, Look and Listen

Our study of developmental stages positions us to communicate well, because one of the important factors in communication is being aware of “where” children are mentally, morally and spiritually. In a way, we are like missionaries going into another culture. We have to learn to speak the language. We have to try see the world through children’s eyes. We must also listen.

For several years, I taught writing classes for upper elementary grades, junior high and high school. One assignment required fifth graders to write a paper entitled “What Am I?” Some of the papers were very revealing. One girl wrote:

“What am I? A best friend to some, an enemy to others, a little voice coming from behind the wall that no one hears.”


Another girl wrote:

“What am I? I am the little girl in the ballerina suit twirling and spinning around and around. The little girl who got up on stage and sang a song at preschool graduation. The little girl with food on her face. I am the little girl walking just in a diaper. I am also the little schoolgirl doing her homework. I am just a painting on the wall that nobody hardly looks at.”


Children know when no one is listening. Their feelings are no different than ours: When somebody listens to us, we feel valued.

But it’s not only children who benefit when an adult listens to them. The adult benefits as well. We gain insights into the child’s needs and interests. Remember the questions asked at the end of most of the previous chapters. “Do you know a child this age? What do they like?” and so on. The better you know a child, the better positioned you are for communicating with him.

I taught four year olds at church for many years. At the beginning of one year, we had in our class a little boy who was particularly rambunctious. Jonathan couldn’t seem to keep his hands off the other children. It was hard for him to focus on the learning activities. Since I was the supervising teacher, when the children went to different activities, I roved from center to center, making sure everything was all right. I would watch and listen and help wherever I was needed.

One day, I happened to be visiting Jonathan’s group. They were drawing pictures. I thought I heard Jonathan say he was drawing a cougar. I knelt beside him and watched. His lips were pressed tight. His eyes glared at the paper. He was mashing down hard with his crayon, drawing big, dark circles, around and around and around.

I said, “Jonathan, I like the colors you’re using to make your cougar.”

“It’s not a cougar,” said Jonathan. He kept making circles, gazing at his paper. “It’s a big, fat female.”

I was so surprised, I wanted to laugh. But I didn’t. (One rule of communication: Don’t laugh at what kids say unless they are trying to tell a joke. Usually when a preschooler says something funny, it’s serious. Their “jokes” are usually not funny.)

Anyway, I didn’t say anything, not because I thought this was an important listening moment, but because I couldn’t think of anything to say. I just kept watching and listening. Then Jonathan said something that opened a big door of understanding.

Drawing circles furiously, and without looking up at me, he said, “My mommy and my daddy is makin’ problems, and my daddy is gonna’ move out.”

All of a sudden, I knew why Jonathan behaved the way he did in class. He was angry and confused and lost. He didn’t know how to handle his feelings.

Jonathan taught me that listening is extremely important. It helps us know where kids are mentally, morally, spiritually and emotionally. Robert Coles, author of The Spiritual Life of Children, was asked in an interview, “Do you think we miss out on opportunities to know children by failing to listen to them?”

He answered, “Yes, I do. Remember, Jesus said that the children in some way will be a clue to eternity. Children were not meant to be put in the straitjackets that some of us want them to be in, to hold their breath until they grow up. They offer us a chance to see a good part of what we are: human beings struggling to figure out what this world means. They ask all sorts of wonderful questions in that regard.”2

How can we learn to communicate better? We can stop, look and listen.



Dr. Robert Hemfelt, a psychologist, and Dr. Paul Warren, a behavioral pediatrician, have co-authored several books about parent-child relationships. They say that “play is the single most effective way to communicate with children less than nine years old.”3 Why? Play provides a comfortable format for communication.

I once heard a radio interview with a woman named Kelly Bates who worked at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Her job was to help children who came to the hospital to undergo a traumatic type of treatment or who had already been through a trauma. She was once asked, “How do you get children to trust you? They don’t know you, and you are only with them for a short time.” She answered simply, “I play with them.”

When you play with children, you get to know each other. You build relationship. Children grow to trust you, because you are showing you value them. You are communicating that they are important enough for you to give them one of your most precious possessions: time.

This is true not only for young children, but also for ‘tweens and teens. My husband and I experienced this in our own family. When our sons were teenagers, some of our best conversations occurred as we played together. Sometimes we played cards. Sometimes we played badminton. Sometimes we played catch or shot baskets. Working together can serve the same function. When you are focused on something other than the child, barriers come down and conversation is freer.

One mother told me she had experienced this with one of her three sons. They were teenagers, and their grandmother had died. One son in particular had not been able to mourn, and he seemed closed for discussion about the death. Their family had the habit of playing cards together. During one of their card games, this son paused and said, “I miss grandmother.” Play relaxed the barriers and opened the door for communication.

How does this translate to the classroom? We teachers should not only direct activities, but also join and enjoy them. We should not be afraid to play and work with children, because it provides a great format for communication.


Give Positive Instructions

Children often hear, “Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” Life is full of “don’ts.” But telling children what to do is often more effective than telling them what not to do. It may take some practice, but we can learn to express most of our instructions in a positive way.

I was once demonstrating teaching techniques to a group of parents. As I handed paper cups to the children, I said, “Keep the cups in a cup shape.” The parents laughed at me, and I admit, my instructions did sound funny. I could have said, “Don’t crush the cups.” Instead, I deliberately tried to be positive. Sometimes this results in creative sentences!

But there are definite advantages to being positive, besides just encouraging positive thinking. First of all, if I had said, “Don’t crush the cups,” I would have given that idea to several children who hadn’t thought of it yet. Second, by being positive, I limited their alternatives.

For example, if I want my class to walk down the hall quietly, it would be a mistake to say, “Don’t run.” Why? Because that would leave many other options. Kids could skip, roll, dance, jump and find lots of other creative ways to get down the hall. They would still be obeying me, as long as they were not running. But if I say, “Walk quietly,” I give them only one option, my choice.

In one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Laura and her sister Mary spend a day sliding down the straw-stack. When Pa comes home, he is upset, because the straw is now scattered across the yard, and he has to re-stack it. He says, “You girls mustn’t slide down the straw-stack any more.”

After dinner, Laura and Mary take a walk outside. They amble close to the straw-stack and begin sniffing it. Soon Laura is rolling in the straw. “Come on, Mary!” she calls. “Pa didn’t say we can’t roll!”

Pa is angry until he sees how the girls have interpreted his instructions. He ends up by saying that the straw “MUST – STAY – STACKED.” He learned to state his instructions in a positive way instead of negative.


Choose Words Carefully, Speak them Clearly

Sometimes children misunderstand us because they don’t know the meaning of the words we use. So they assume we are saying a similar word that they do know.

One little girl heard that a mean teacher at her school had been fired. She went home and told her parents that the supervisor had burned up the mean old teacher.

One family passed a smelly meat-packing plant every Sunday on their way to church. The mother told the kids that the bad smell came “from the plant over there.” A few years later, on a vacation, they smelled the same bad smell. One of the children pointed to a tall weed and said, “It must come from the plant over there.”

Other times, children misunderstand because we don’t enunciate our words clearly, or we speak too quickly or too softly. A friend of mine grew up in a church where they often sang the song, “Lead On, O King Eternal.” He always thought they were saying, “Lead On, O Kinky Turtle.”

One five-year-old boy came home from Sunday school asking, “What’s a weeklebutt?” The child became more and more frustrated when his dad could not tell him. Finally more information came out. “You know,” the child said. “We are weeklebutt. He is strong.” Dad had to explain the words to the familiar song “Jesus Loves Me.”

Misunderstandings not only happen with young children, but with teens and adults as well. I once heard a pastor say in his sermon, “We all have fallen genes.” But the word “genes” was heard as “jeans.” A muffled laughter spread across the congregation. It took a moment before the pastor realized what he had said.

Some misunderstandings are inevitable. But we can minimize them by choosing our words carefully and speaking them clearly.


Use Good Manners

Speak to children respectfully. Remember “please” and “thank you.” Even when you must be firm, be courteous. Never call children names or belittle them. Our attitude toward children should not be one of condescension, but of respect.

Remember when Jesus’ disciples argued over who was the greatest? Jesus took a little child and brought him into their group. He said, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all – he is the greatest” (Luke 9:48).

Pay attention to the way you welcome children into your room. Treat the child the way you would treat an adult. Greet him by name. Smile at him. Listen to him. Talk to little children in a normal tone of voice and not with “baby talk.”

Be careful about teasing children, especially young ones. Teasing can confuse a child confused about what you really mean, and sometimes it is received as mockery and criticism. Teasing can easily make a child feel stupid. We want children to feel loved and valued.

Taking the time and effort to communicate effectively with children will reap great rewards for teachers. After all, we are to reflect Jesus to those around us, including children. Henrietta Meers said, “First I learned to love my teacher. Then I learned to love my teacher’s God.”  That is the goal.


–from Child Sensitive Teaching, by Karyn Henley, Chapter 11
© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Exclusively administered by Child Sensitive Communication, LLC.

child photo courtesy Used by permission.

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