Voice volume and tone of voice are both subtle but critical aspects of social interaction.
We all know a child who talks too loudly during interactions, their voice overpowering the conversation and negatively affecting their peer interactions.
There are the children who don’t speak loud enough for their opinions and thoughts to be heard by others, affecting their ability to maintain these peer interactions.
Then there are the children who speak too harshly or aggressively, when the situation calls for maybe a more straightforward tone.
There is even the child whose voice doesn’t match their facial expression, which leaves others confused by their intentions.
Voice Modulation is Complicated
This issue is one that parents ask me about constantly, as its effect on communication is often significant. How can I help my child understand how they sound? It isn’t as easy as “inside voice” vs. “outside voice” for these children. Telling them they sound “mean” also isn’t helping them understand what tone really means. As with all social skills, it’s a complicated issue and calls for integration of a number of skills. Here are a few examples:
A child must understand that different contexts call for a different tone of voice. For example, your tone with a sibling is often very different from your tone with a teacher. Your volume in a doctor’s waiting room is quite different from your volume at recess.
Additionally, children must understand that we express our emotions through not only our facial expressions and body language, but with our voice too. This nonverbal language and our tone of voice, also must match.
Children need to be able to interpret this nonverbal language, in order to adjust their own communication and tone…and understand the message. If this skill is a challenge, we often see a misinterpretation of a social situation. Humor is an aspect of social skills where tone of voice plays a major role.
As a pediatric speech and language pathologist, I address tone of voice often with children. Here are some of the ways that I help break down this concept.
When Volume is the Sole Problem
Create a 5 point scale to assist with understanding. I like the Incredible 5 Point Scale by Kara Dunn Burton M.S.
As in the image to the left, a “1” can mean “no voice,” “2” “whisper voice,” “3” “talking voice,” “4” loud/yelling voice, and “5” screaming.
Use this scale to assist with both receptively identifying vocal volume, as well as helping students practice and adjust their own volume.
Create Social Scenarios
Create social situations, and have them identify which volume would be appropriate. For example, “You’re on the playground, and you want to start a game of tag. What number voice would you use?” (4), “Why?” (because you’re outside and need to gain a group of people’s attention).
Use this scale to help label vocal volume for them. “Wow you’re voice is a 4 right now, and I need it to be closer to a 3. We are inside the school, in the classroom talking.” As well as “I love you’re number “2” voice while we are in the library, that is perfect!” You are helping them understand this “spectrum” of vocal volumes.
If adjusting the volume is a challenge, try providing a visual representation of their volume by using a concrete tool. One way to do this is by using an app, like the Voice-O-Meter. This app is also very helpful for children with vocal disorders to assist them in improving their vocal use and quality.
Use exaggerated body language when the child uses inappropriate vocal volume. For example, jumping back a bit or covering your ears when the child is talking too loudly (and the opposite if it’s too quiet) to help them start reading other’s body language and then adjust their volume.
This is a great opportunity for role play as well. Create scripts of different social situations and then “act out” appropriate and inappropriate use of volume. Recording these role plays can be great for feedback, as well as reminders of this skill later on if necessary. These role plays can be turned into movies using a video recorder, and even edited on iMovie.
When Tone is the Issue
Start with ensuring understanding of emotions. Can the student identify emotions in pictures? Story books are a great place for stimuli. Can they “read” the characters body language? What is the character’s face telling us? How would the character say X? Provide models if necessary.
Many fun stories can be used to address tone of voice, such as The Duckling Gets a Cookie!?, The Pigeon Wants a Puppy, Watch Me Throw the Ball!, and Personal Space Camp. Kids can act out the story, practice “tone of voice”, identify emotions and nonverbal language, and much more.
There’s an App
Using creation apps such as Toontastic to create a story is a great way to practice different tone of voice. How did the character feel? How could you tell?
Voice recording apps such as Quickvoice can be used across all contexts as a way to listen to the “tone.”
In our Social Adventures App, we share a game called “My Voice Says it All” which involves saying a phrase in various tones of voice or emotions. For example saying, “We’re having broccoli for dinner” scared, happy, surprised, angry, etc. Then discuss how the words were the same, but the tone was different. How does this affect the meaning?
Often children need to hear for themselves how they sound. During sessions or during social groups, I often will “pause” and say what the child said back to them, imitating the tone and/or volume exactly as I heard it. Often children don’t realize how they sound. This is often eye-opening, and helps them begin the process of self-monitoring.
As mentioned above, using exaggerated body language and role play both are great approaches for helping with tone of voice.
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