You’d think talking to kids is easy — you just nod your head and speak in an uplifting tone while constantly ensuring and reinforcing their good behaviors, all while trying to squeeze in as many hugs or kisses as possible.
You’d think that after all your years of enlightenment, education and life experience, talking to a 2-year-old who’s marching around the classroom without pants and with ketchup dripping down the side of their mouth couldn’t possibly be intimidating.
You’d quickly find that to be wrong.
The funny thing about children is that they are truly like sponges; they soak up every single thing you can offer them — even unconsciously — be it language, mannerisms, opinions, speech or beliefs. And because of that incredible quality, communication with children becomes one of the most indispensable and integral ways to help them develop.
This summer, I was honored to have the opportunity to work in an early-intervention school based in Holon, Israel for children diagnosed with autism, defined as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” I was placed in a classroom with 2 and 3-year-olds, my job being to direct several speech and physical therapy programs closely designed to match the behavioral and developmental needs of each student. In working with these specific students, many of whom were nonverbal, I discovered the incredible power in communicating without dialogue.
I began to help my students by teaching them how to talk using their entire bodies, becoming conscious of their control over their legs, their arms and fingers, their eyes and body language. When asking for something, they learned to grab my hand and use their arms to point to what they wanted, which was a significant advancement from frustrated crying. They learned to feel my face and watch my mouth when I gave their item a name and to repeat it back to me before getting it. They learned to communicate their emotions by finding eye contact, or by pressing my open palm to where they hurt so I knew to kiss it and say, “Hakol be’seder,” or “Everything is all right.” They began to play with each other by sharing toys, imitating each other’s verbal successes, using visual markers to display feelings and picking up on a few obvious social cues we exhibited for them to follow.
You can change a child’s entire life by teaching them how to communicate with their peers and the people around them. Communication allows for interaction, for the building of relationships, for the attainment of goals and for the spread of knowledge. The staff I worked with marveled at the way our kids were thriving. We continued to talk to them, giving them an opportunity to listen, to imitate, to internalize. We encouraged them to talk to each other, to play with each other, to tell the classroom about their favorite thing that happened over the weekend.
It was there that I learned why it was so intimidating to talk to my kids. There were thousands of opportunities for them to pick up on something negative and destructive hiding behind my attempts at teaching how to deal with frustration, anger or sadness. There were so many times they could have quit because they couldn’t communicate their hardships to me.
Yet because they are kids, and because there are superheroes hiding in their tiny bodies, they persevered. And they tried. And failed. And tried again. And on my last day of work, they all ran up to give me a huge hug, and I knew that communicated more than a thousand words.
Hannah Gulko is a junior majoring in human development.