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Eds Up talks to Sioban Boyce about the importance of non-verbal communication as a foundation for the rest of children’s lives

Last year, Dundee University released research claiming that rear-facing buggies were better for babies and toddlers because the child was much happier, slept better and there was more verbal interaction between parent and child. Sioban Boyce was frustrated at the research findings and subsequent media coverage that focused on sleep and happiness. She believes that we have missed the key reason why children should spend a lot of time face-to-face with parents and carers.

On the eve of the Waterstones launch of her book, Not Just Talking, Sioban spent time with us to explain how, before we even start talking, the foundations of communication, conversation and interaction with others are based on non-verbal skills and how these skills are picked up from day one.

Talking but not communicating

During the 1980s, Sioban worked as a Speech and Language Therapist in the National Health Service. Through her work, she discovered that many of the children referred to her could tick all the boxes verbally but she knew that there was still something wrong:

“I became aware that children referred to me for assessment could talk but were not communicating. They had difficulty making friends, behaving as expected, getting the best out of schools and communicating about their emotions.”

She began to realise, through her subsequent focused research, that the first few months and years of a child’s life were key and that clear changes in our modern day-to-day life could potentially be impacting the baby’s development of these basic skills.

So, what is non-verbal communication?

“Think what might happen if your five year-old talked to his teacher in the way that he talks to his eight year-old sister. Think too about what might happen if he doesn’t recognise when his teacher first begins to feel annoyed by his behaviour and only takes notice when she has got to the point of being absolutely furious,” asks Sioban. The answer is that he is likely to find school difficult.

Between 60-90% of communication is non-verbal. Non-verbal communication forms the basis ofsuccessful interaction and conversation. Facial expressions, body language, the reading of situations, gesture and intonation all add up to help us behave appropriately in different situations. We need to be able to understand all of this at school, in social situations with young friends, with adults. Right from the early years we need to be able to talk effectively and gauge the emotions of others. “The period before children start to talk is the foundation for the rest of their lives,” believes Sioban.

What has today’s lifestyle got to do with it?

It is clearly recognised that babies and toddlers learn through observing and modelling. They need to be able to spend time watching other people, observing face-to-face communication.

The major social changes that affect this skill learning are the use of buggies, the lack of family meal times and the reliance on TV and computers as entertainment.

As soon as your baby is born, he will start searching around for faces – this is an innate desire

Go back to the 1950s and 60s and you will see that the daily lives of our parents and our grandparents’ generations were very different. In the old days, babies would have been surrounded by many different people, things to look at, noises to decipher. There would have been aunts and uncles, grandparents, brothers and sisters cooing over the baby, pulling faces and singing nursery rhymes. Skills were handed down through generations and extended family made it easier for the baby to experience different things.

Between 60-90% of communication is non-verbal

We all know that our lives just aren’t like this anymore and we would be idealistic to think we could go back in time. Fortunately, Sioban is really keen to reassure parents that this is not the end of the world and that with just a little extra work we can make up for this.

So, how do we teach these skills?

As soon as a baby is born, it will scream – here begins its learning of how to use vocal cords, lips and tongue. This is essential preparation for learning control of the tone and volume of his voice when he starts speaking. The baby will then start searching around for faces. This is an innate desire but it wanes after about 24 hours if the baby is not stimulated.

Sioban believes that the more faces a baby sees early on, the more expressions of emotions they clock. Experience of these emotions will be filed in the brain and will help children understand and recognise the differences, (even subtle), between happiness, elation, excitement, surprise, pride, shock, sadness, boredom, annoyance, anger, fury, bemusement, grief…

Modelling and imitation

During the early days, Sioban says to have a go at “holding your baby in front of you so that you are looking directly at his face. You need to be quite close to him, about 30cm away. When he looks at you, stick your tongue out at him. Repeat this expression a few times. As long as he is gazing intently at you, he should gradually start to try to stick his tongue out, imitating your expression.” He is unable to make out fine detail but will see principal features. This encourages imitation, a key communication skill.

Most advice is to ensure bonding with your baby but communication skills are far more important and should be your first concern. Bonding is only possible through communication.

Big faces, big talk

There is always debate on how we should speak to children. Sioban does not believe in the idea of talking to babies and toddlers like an adult. Shethinks that it leads to problems because, as they grow up, they won’t know how to talk to their peers: “Children who experience only one type of conversation will grow up being able to communicate only in that one style.”

So, for her, simple talk, exaggerated intonation and big expressions help them learn. Playing face-to-face with the baby and allowing them to copy exaggerated facial expressions enables them to pick up clues e.g. “a frown, a smile, a nod of the head, a wave of the hand.” These expressions should be “loud” and “obvious”. Doing this also helps children develop their facial muscles.

Singing nursery rhymes to them when they are babies and together, when they are older, teaches intonation patterns, rhythm, stresses to be placed on different words. Through the repetition of these rhymes it becomes embedded.

Children need to be able to understand facial expressions, body language, the reading of situations, gesture and intonation in order to behave appropriately at school, in social situations with young friends and when talking to adults

Two-way interaction

Sioban advises parents: “Always make sure you get close to your baby, so that she can see your face clearly: bend over the cot, get down on the floor with her, lift her onto your knee.” This can be continued as children get older as it is a reminder to them to look at people in the face when communicating.

Good opportunities to interact are when you are feeding them. You send each other signals and looks (whether they want more, have had enough and so on) – receiving them and replying to them. This teaches how to wait your turn in conversation.

Allowing children to play with others their own age also gives them the opportunity to interact with their peers and experience a different kind of situation that will have social benefits at schools and as they grow up.

Predicting what’s going to happen?

“Without prediction, kids will be in turmoil, develop anxiety and potentially depression because they are unable to predict what is going to happen next. As adults we know the stress that we feel if, for example, we go for a job interview and we then have to wait to find out whether we have got the job. If children are unable to predict, these are the emotions that they feel from moment to moment,” says Sioban, “When we are anxious… we become tongue-tied and struggle to express ourselves.”

If they can develop the skill to predict, children will feel “more confident and therefore better able to communicate,” able to predict other people’s reactions to what they are about to say and therefore judge how best to approach saying it.

This skill can start from early feeding with the spoon: “Here comes the train into the station,” and can becontinued through the use of simple phrases telling them, for example, what you are going to do next, talking through each stage of an activity and signalling when the activity is about to come to an end.

Will today’s lifestyle really affect them?

Buggies: Many believe that it is important for children to sit in a buggy that faces forward so that they can see the world around them: “It is probably the buggy more than anything else that has reduced the amount of time that babies spend watching people hold conversations. Sitting in a pram, the baby can see his mother and, most likely, whoever she might be talking to,” says Sioban.

This leads to a one-sided conversation if the child is sitting forward and it makes it difficult for them to tell whether they are being spoken to, if the parent is talking to someone else or chatting on their mobile phone. It also means that they are unable to look at the parent or carer’s face and model their expressions and behaviour.

“It is the buggy more than anything else that has reduced the amount of time that babies spend watching people hold conversations”

This doesn’t mean however you have to throw out your forward-facing buggy, “it just means you need to compensate a little more for it.” Sioban advises that that buggy should be high enough so that they can see and hear conversation and that when having a conversation with your child or friends, make sure that you have turned the buggy round to face you.

TV and computers: When babies and toddlers are placed in front of the television or computers, the signals and behaviour on the flat screen are too complicated and subtle for them to pick up. Sioban believes it is far better for them to watch you talking whilst you are doing things. Similarly, computers are best placed in a family room rather than in the child’s bedroom so that interaction between the family can continue.

Family meal table: With the loss of family meal times or sitting at the table, rather than in front of the TV, children are denied the experience of seeing group interaction and conversation with parents, siblings and friends. Sioban believes that this is an easy time for the skills to be picked up and things like watching the food being prepared, laying the table, calling out to the family when the meal is ready etc. all add up to help children predict what is going to happen and how to react to it.

Good news!

What is fantastic about the teaching of these skills to children, says Sioban, is the fact that children can learn from anyone. It does not have to come down just to the parents. So carers, nursery staff and friends will all contribute to the building of communication techniques and they don’t entail loads of complicated exercises.

The other good news is that it is easy! Sioban believes that we can do it by simply looking for opportunities and gauging situations in daily life that allow children to experience faces and communication around them.

In this interview, we have merely touched the surface on the work of Sioban Boyce, which includes focusing on signing, self-awareness, routine, getting ready to talk and more! Sioban wants to get the training spread out nationally so that every education or health authority is passing this information on to new parents to make life a little easier for children through school years and beyond. Until then, her book is a fantastic place to start!


Sioban Boyce’s book, Not Just Talking, is now available from Waterstones nationwide
Her website is