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Social interactions and conversations are a bit like a balancing act.  Ideally, no one participant will take up too much “talking time” and no one participant will be left out.  For many, this sense of balance or social timing is intuitive, but for others it is not.  In the first two posts of this series, I offered some suggestions for developing an improved sense of social timing.  I suggested that kids can get off to a good start using the “Hey, Guess What?” catch phrase and keep their stories “short and exciting” by providing a visual frame, the Talking Train, for including just three important details.  While these strategies are certainly helpful, they are not always enough.

Nonverbal Cues
Conversations are living things, they evolve dynamically, so we also need to help kids respond dynamically.  The best way for them to do this is by attending to and interpreting nonverbal cues.  When a child is able to notice that his listeners have lost interest, he can “cut to the chase”, when he sees that his friends are laughing and nodding and smiling, he will realize that he can keep going, and when he sees that someone is trying to interject, he will know to ask a question.

But these nonverbal cues are often invisible to many of our kids.  I often think that it is similar to learning music.  Some people are just musical by nature, while the rest of us need to be taught.  So what is the best way to teach the meaning of nonverbal cues?  While it may be tempting to try to teach kids to notice and interpret these cues in the moment, it is my experience that nonverbal games and role play are more effective learning tools.

Nonverbal Games
In our group program, we have adapted a number of typical playground games to be nonverbal and the kids love them.

For the youngest kids, we play Red Light Green Light this way:

  • The designated leader (usually an adult to start) stands in front of the children and tells them that this is a non-talking game.
  • The leader looks at a child to indicate it is that particular child’s turn to move.
  • The leader then uses gestures to tell the child what to do. Gestures can be used to indicate all types of actions, but we usually start with the “come here” gesture, the “stop” gesture and the “go back” gesture.   After a few seconds, use the “stop” gesture to end that child’s turn.
  • Once all of the children reach the leader, a new leader is chosen.

To practice facial expressions, we play Show Me Your Ice Cream Face this way:

  • Gather kids in a circle and have a discussion about happy, sad and disgusted facial expressions.  Model and have the kids use mirrors if necessary.
  • The leader then tells kids that they are going to use their faces to tell how they feel about different kinds of ice cream.
  • Start with “show me your face if I gave you your favorite kind of ice cream” to practice happy faces.
  • Then try a variety of appealing flavors to point out that kids may have different reactions to the same flavor.
  • Add in some disgusting flavors to encourage a “yucky face.”
  • Every now and then, say, “you don’t get any ice cream” or “your ice cream is melted” to encourage a disappointed face.

Role Play
As kids get older, it is important for them to interpret more subtle facial expressions, such as those that convey when the listener is bored, distracted, or wants to contribute.  We have found that the best way to teach these skills is through the use of role play.  Prior to beginning role plays with our kids, we tell them that they are the directors and that when they are watching the “show” it is their job to say “Cut!” if they notice that something has gone awry and “Print!” when things go well.

  • Adults initially role play a situation where actor #1 begins talking and just keeps talking even though actor #2 has begun to look incredibly bored (yawning, looking away, rolling eyes, etc) and continues to do so in an increasingly exaggerated manner until someone says, “Cut!”
  • The role play stops and the adults begin a discussion about what specifically the kids saw that showed that actor #2 was bored.
  • “Action” is called again and the actors resume, only this time as soon as actor #2 begins to look bored, actor #1 says something like, “so anyway, then I went home.  What did you do for Halloween?” and the kids say, “Print!”
  • Have kids take turns in each role with an adult playing the other role until the kids demonstrate mastery.
  • Finish up by having kids role play with each other.

Nonverbals on the Fly
Perhaps one of the best ways to keep kids tuned into facial expressions, gestures and body language is by using them ourselves whenever possible.  Here are some ideas:

  • When it is time to change activities, look at the clock expectantly.
  • When kids need to put shoes, books, papers etc. in a particular spot, use your eyes to indicate that spot.
  • When kids are misbehaving, strike a disciplinary pose and ask kids what your body is telling them.
  • Use gestural cues whenever possible instead of words (e.g., come here, wait, stop, in a minute).
  • If you have something fun to share, exaggerate your excited facial expression and body language to build some anticipation before sharing.  As kids begin to respond with excitement, ask them how they know if the news will be good or bad.

I hope these ideas inspire you to get in touch with your nonverbal side.  Stay tuned next month for the last post in this series of 4.  See you again on the 23rd 🙂