Good communication is central to working with children, young people, families and carers. It helps build trust and encourages them to seek advice and use services. It is key to establishing and maintaining relationships and is an active process that involves listening, questioning, understanding and responding. You should always communicate with them appropriately to match the stage of development, personal circumstances, and needs of the person you’re talking to.
It is important to be able to communicate both on a one-on-one basis and in a group. Communication is not just about the words you use, but also about the way you’re speaking and your body language. You need to feel and show empathy and sincerity, and above all, listen. You need to take account of culture and context. For example, you need to be aware and communicate appropriately if English is an additional language, or the child is disabled or at risk of under-achievement or other poor outcomes.
Effective communication extends to involving children, young people, their parents and carers in the design and delivery of services and decisions that affect them. It is important to consult the people affected and consider opinions and perspectives from the outset. Another crucial element of effective communication is developing trust between the workforce and children, young people, parents and carers – as well as within different sectors of the workforce itself.
To build a rapport with children, young people, their parents and carers, it is important to be respectful, understanding and honest. People become engaged when relationships are continuous, and their lives improve as a result.
The skills and knowledge highlighted here and throughout the common core provide a basic description of areas that may need development through training, learning or experience in order to work effectively.
Listening and building empathy
- Establish a rapport and build respectful, trusting, honest and supportive relationships with children, young people, their families and carers, which make them feel valued as partners.
- Use clear language to communicate with all children, young people, families and carers, including people who find communication difficult, or are at risk of exclusion or under-achievement.
- Be able to adapt styles of communication to the needs and abilities of children and young people who do not communicate verbally, or communicate in different ways.
- Build a rapport and develop relationships using the most appropriate forms of communication (for example, spoken language, visual communication, play, body and sign language, information and communication technologies) to meet the needs of the individual child or young person and their families and carers.
- Hold conversations at the appropriate time and place, understanding the value of regular, reliable contact and recognising that it takes time to build a relationship.
- Actively listen in a calm, open, non-judgmental, non-threatening way and use open questions. Acknowledge what has been said, and check you have heard correctly.
- Make sure that children, young people, parents and carers know they can communicate their needs and ask for help
Summarising and explaining
- Summarise situations in the appropriate way for the individual (taking into account factors such as background, age and personality).
- Present genuine choices to children and young people, explaining what has happened or will happen next and what they are consenting to.
- Decide together how to involve parents or carers in the choices to be made.
Consultation and negotiation
- Consult the child or young person, and their parents or carers from the beginning of the process.
- Make informed judgments about how to involve children, young people, parents and carers in decisions as far as is possible and appropriate. Take account of their views and what they want to see happen. Be honest about the weight of their opinions and wishes.
- Inform, involve and help the child or young person to express what they are feeling. Help them to describe what they are experiencing and to assess different courses of action. Help them understand the consequences of each and, where appropriate, agree on next steps.
- Recognise that different people have different interests in a situation and be able to work with them to reach the best and most fair conclusion for the child or young person.
- Share reasons for action with the child or young person and their parent or carer, unless to do so would increase the risk of harm to them or another person.
- Judge when, and how to hand over control of a situation to others.
How communication works
- Understand the value of the role of parents and carers, and know how and when to refer them to further sources of information, advice or support.
- Know that communication is a two-way process.
- Know how to listen to people, make them feel valued and involved.
- Understand the importance of building good relationships with children, young people, their parents and carers.
- Know when it is important to focus on individuals and when it is important to focus on groups.
- Know how your attitude and behaviour have an effect on children, young people, their parents and carers, and the importance of offering praise and support.
- Understand the effects of non- verbal communication such as body language, and that different cultures use and interpret body language in different ways.
- Be aware of different ways of communicating, including technological methods. Understand barriers to communication, which could include poverty, cultural or faith requirements, disability, disadvantage or anxiety about accessing services.
- Understand that parents and carers are partners who have the lead role and responsibility for children and young people. Involving them in decisions affecting their child can have a positive effect on supporting their children to achieve positive outcomes.
- Know how children and young people’s communication skills develop, how to recognise communication difficulties, and how to support children and young people with communication needs.
- Be aware that communication may be inhibited by factors such as cultural background.
- Understand that certain issues such as sex, death and violence are particularly sensitive or difficult and that children, young people or their families may sometimes associate or experience stigma with certain issues, such as mental health problems. It may be necessary to explain to children, young people, parents and carers that it is helpful to discuss them.
- Be aware that the child, young person, parent or carer may not have understood what is being communicated. Know how to check understanding.
- Know how to report and record information formally and informally in the appropriate way for the audience.
- Understand that sometimes it is necessary to go against a child, young person, parent or carer’s expressed wishes in the best interests of the child or young person. If this happens, make sure the child or young person understands what is happening and why, unless to do so would increase the risk of harm to them or another person.
Sources of support
- Know where information, advice and support services for children, young people, parents and carers are available locally.
- Know when and how to refer to sources of information, advice or support from different agencies or professionals in children’s or adult services.
Importance of respect
Be self-aware. Know how to demonstrate a commitment to treating all people fairly. Be respectful by actively listening and avoiding assumptions. Make sure your actions support the equality, diversity, rights and responsibilities of children, young people, their parents and carers.
Why is effective communication important?
In order to contribute to positive relationships, you will need to demonstrate and model effective communication skills in your dealings with others. This means that you should consider both how you approach other people and how you respond to them. We are more likely to communicate information to one another if we have positive relationships. Parents and other adults who come into the school are more likely to give beneficial support if communication is strong and effective – this, in turn, benefits pupils. It is also important for pupils that we model effective communication skills. This means checking what we are saying sometimes in moments of stress or excitement so that they can understand what our expectations are in school. If we ask pupils to behave in a particular way when communicating and then forget to do so ourselves, they will find it harder to understand the boundaries of what is acceptable.
Effective communication and positive relationships do not happen by chance. You should think about the way you relate to others and the messages that this sends out. In situations where communication breaks down, misunderstandings can lead to bad feeling.
The principles of relationship building
The principles of relationship building with children and adults in any context are that if others are comfortable in our company, they will be more likely to communicate effectively. Where people do not get along or are suspicious of one another, they are likely to avoid one another wherever possible. Positive relationships are not something which should be left to chance and it is important to consider the ways in which we can develop them.
We build relationships with others in school on a daily basis in a number of different ways. Although you may do some of these without necessarily thinking about it, it is worth taking time to consider whether you do all of the following.
- Effective communication – this is the key area for developing relationships with others and also covers many different forms of communication.
- Showing respect – in order to develop positive relationships with others, it is very important to be courteous and respectful and to listen to their points of view. Adults and pupils with whom you work may also be from different cultures and have different beliefs or values from your own. You should ensure that you acknowledge and respect the views of others at all times and take time to remember names and preferred forms of address.
- Being considerate – take the time to consider the positions of others. You may be working with a child or adult who is under particular pressure at a given time and needs to understand why they may have behaved or reacted in a certain way or out of character.
- Remembering issues which are personal to them – it will always help to build positive relationships if you enquire after particular aspects of another person’s life – for example, if you know that a colleague is concerned about their child getting into a particular secondary school, or if you are aware that it is a child’s birthday.
- Taking time to listen to others – make sure that you take time to listen to other people, in particular, if they are asking for advice or help, or if they need to confide in you. You should always show that you are interested in what they have to say and respond appropriately.
- Being clear on key points – when you have conversations with others in which you are giving them information, you should always ensure that they are clear what you have said at the end of the discussion. This is because it can be easy to be distracted from the main point of the conversation. When talking to children, always ask them to repeat back to you what they need to do.
- Maintaining a sense of humour – although the nature of our work in school is important, we should also sometimes take time to see the funny side of different situations. Laughter can be a good icebreaker and is also a great way of relaxing and relieving stress.
Social, professional and cultural contexts
When communicating with others, you will need to consider the context in which you are working. You will need to adapt the way you communicate in different situations. It is likely that you will do this automatically – for example, you should use more formal language and behaviour in a meeting Your school will have a range of types of planned communication with other adults – when dealing with other professionals, there will be meetings and discussions as well as more informal communication at different times. However, the spoken word is not the only way in which we communicate – it happens through the way we respond to others, for example, how quickly we respond to an email or phone message, how attentive we are when speaking to someone, how we dress. You may find that the non-spoken forms of communication can be an issue if they are misread by others. You should also remember that different cultures will have their own norms of behaviour which will extend to gestures, body language and eye contact. In some cultures, for example, it is not polite to look another person in the eye when speaking to them.
Understand how to communicate with children, young people and adults
Skills needed to communicate with children and young people
You will need to demonstrate a number of skills in order to communicate effectively with children and young people. Although it is likely that you will do this every day without thinking, it is worth reflecting on the ways in which you this – effective communication is a vital part of your role. Children learn to communicate through the responses of others: if they do not feel that their contribution is valued, they are less likely to initiate communication themselves. You will need to do the following.
- Find opportunities to speak. Make sure that pupils are given sufficient opportunities to talk. Some children have very little chance to put their own thoughts forward and express themselves with adults. They may lack confidence and need to be given a chance to ‘warm up’ first so that they feel able to do so.
- Give eye contact and actively listen. If you say that you are listening, but are looking away and are busy doing something else, this gives the child the message that you are not really interested in what they are saying. Make sure that if a pupil is talking, you are giving them your attention.
- Use body language and facial expressions, and be approachable. Make sure that you show your interest by the way in which you act when speaking to pupils. For example, with very young children, get down to their level. It can be very intimidating to have someone towering over them. Also, make sure that you smile and react in a positive way to what they are saying.
- React and comment on what they are saying. You may need to repeat back to pupils to check on your understanding, particularly if they have used incorrect language: for example, ‘I brought my book in today.’ ‘You have brought your book in today? Oh good, that means we can change it.’
- Be interested, responding and questioning to maintain a conversation. It is important to model and invite the ‘norms’ of conversation with children so that they build up an understanding of how it works. They will do this through experience, so show that you are interested and respond to their questions.
For children to be able to communicate effectively, you should encourage them to ask questions and put their ideas forward. Pupils should feel relaxed and confident enough in school to be able to do this, as it is by questioning and finding out that they learn. They should also be able to offer their own suggestions and ideas so that there is a two-way dialogue between adults and pupils rather than a one-way flow of instructions. This also encourages the formation of positive relationships.
How to adapt communication with children or young people
In order to build relationships with children, you will need to adapt your behaviour and communication accordingly. Children of all ages, cultures and abilities need to feel secure and valued, and your interactions with them should demonstrate this. Through positively communicating with and being involved with children, you will show them that they are part of the school community. However, this is not the same as giving all children attention whenever they demand it!
- The age of the child or young person – children of different ages will require varying levels of attention. Younger children may need more reassurance, particularly when first starting school. They may also need to have more physical contact as a result. As children become more mature, they may need more help with talking through issues and reflecting on their thoughts. You will need to adapt your vocabulary and consider how you interact positively with pupils as you listen and respond to them.
- The context of the communication – you will be dealing with children in a variety of different situations. You will always need to be mindful of this and adapt your verbal communication accordingly. If you are working on a learning activity, it is important that the children are focused and that you deal with any distractions before they interrupt what you are doing. However, if talking to pupils in more social situations, such as the playground or dining hall, you should use this as an opportunity to develop positive relationships with pupils, although you should always speak to them in a way which maintains the relationship of professional carer to a child. Pupils will often question you, for example, about how old you are or what your ‘real name’ is. It is sometimes best to answer these kinds of questions with humour – for example, ‘But Miss Glenn IS my real name!’
- Communication differences – you should ensure care and sensitivity with children who have communication differences, as they will need to take their time and feel unpressured when they are speaking. Some children may not have many opportunities to speak or may be anxious or nervous. You should adopt the way in which you communicate according to their individual needs. If they have a speech disorder, such as a stammer, or conditions which make it difficult for them, they should be allowed to take their time. Try not to fill in words for them or guess what they are going to say, as this may add to their distress.
You may need additional training – for example, in sign language – to be able to communicate effectively or know the most effective strategies to use. In some cases where pupils have special educational needs, you may need to have additional equipment in order to communicate with one another.
Main differences between communicating with adults and with children and young people
There are many similarities between communicating with adults and with children – always maintaining eye contact and interest, responding to what they are saying, and treating them with courtesy and respect.
However, when communicating with children, we also need to think about how we maintain the relationship of carer to a child and what this means in a school context. However well you get on with children, remember that they need to see you as a carer and that your relationships with them will always need to be formal when in school.
When communicating with children, we also need to be very clear and unambiguous in what we say. They need us to communicate what is expected of them so that they can learn to communicate well themselves. Sometimes we forget the importance of making sure that children understand what we mean and might ask them, ‘What did I just ask you to do?’ when they cannot answer the question! Make sure that the vocabulary and verbal expressions you use are at the right level for the children.
You also need to be aware that physical contact with children should not be encouraged when communicating with them. It can be hard to avoid this with very young children, as they will often initiate hugs or want to hold hands. In this situation, it would be inappropriate to tell them not to. However, you should not offer physical contact with children or be overly physical with them at any time.
How to adapt communication to meet different communication needs of adults
It is important that we are sensitive to the needs of other adults, particularly if they have communication difficulties. It is possible that you will adapt the way you communicate with them without realising that you are doing it. We often change the way we react to others, depending on the way in which they react to us. For example, if you are speaking to a parent or carer who is hearing-impaired, you might make sure that you are facing them and giving eye contact so that they can lip-read. However, if you have contact with adults who have other communication difficulties, you may need to reflect and make sure you adapt your means of communication.
Oen, schools will send out or gather information in a particular way, for example, through letters or emails. Depending on their individual needs, the recipients may not be able to access this method of communication easily, and this will not always be clear. You may need to observe sensitivity, for example, if you need to ask a parent or carer why they have not responded to a note that was sent home.
If you need to communicate with other adults who speak English as an additional language, you may need to have a translator and meet together if the information you are communicating is complex or difficult to convey.
How to manage disagreements
It is likely that at some point in your work you will have disagreements with others. In many cases, disagreements are down to lack of communication or miscommunication with others. However, they should be managed very carefully so that bad feeling does not persist afterwards. As adults, we can sometimes misread or perceive information wrongly and may think that someone has communicated something to us when they have not. We will sometimes blame others for saying things that could be ambiguous or for having a different point of view from ourselves.
Where there are areas of conflict with other adults, you will need to show sensitivity and try to resolve the situation as soon as possible. The longer a problem is allowed to go on, the more difficult it will be to resolve it. You should not be drawn into a disagreement with a child and you will need to manage this sort of situation carefully and seek advice if necessary.
Often areas of conflict occur when communication has not been effective. This may be because:
- letters have not been passed on by parents or children
- there is a lack of time
- there has been a misunderstanding.
The best way to resolve areas of poor communication is to discuss them to establish a cause and then find a way forward together. The important thing is not to ignore the problem or talk to everyone else about it except the individual concerned.
Sometimes adults may not have the same ideas about the purpose of an activity or meeting or come with a different idea in mind. You should always clarify exactly the aims of what you are there to do and why.
Different values and ideas
Parents and schools may sometimes have different methods of dealing with situations. Whereas the school may request that children do things in a particular way, parental views may be very different. You may need to work alongside others to explain or clarify why things need to happen in a different way in school.
You may be working with an individual who has considerable home pressures or other issues, which are affecting how they communicate. External professionals or parents are likely to have time pressures and other pressures of which you are not aware. As we get to know people, we will be able to identify if they are behaving in an uncharacteristic way and be able to ask if there is anything wrong or if we can help.
Lack of confidence
Sometimes adults can act in an aggressive way if they are not sure about what they are doing or if they lack confidence. This may come across in a personal way to others, but is more to do with how they perceive themselves and their own abilities. You may need to be sensitive to this and offer them encouragement and support.
Reassuring children, young people and adults of the confidentiality of shared information
When you are party to gathering information, whatever this is, you may sometimes be in a position where you need to reassure others about the fact that it is confidential. If you attend meetings or need to be told about confidential items, you should make sure that you let others know your obligations. In most cases, parental consent would need to be given before any information about children can be shared with other professionals. However, if there are any issues to indicate that the child is at risk from harm or abuse, or if there is a legal obligation placed on the school to disclose information, this can be done. There may also be cases where information on pupils needs to be accessible to all staff, for example, where pupils have specific medical conditions such as asthma or epilepsy. In this case, there should be an agreed system within the school for making sure that all staffs are aware of these pupils. Some schools may display photographs of them in staff rooms or dining areas, for example, and remove them if the premises are used by others during the evening.
Situations when confidentiality protocols must be breached
If you find yourself in a position where another individual confides in you, it is important to remember that there are some situations in which you will need to tell others. This is particularly true in cases of suspected child abuse or when a child or young person is at risk. You should at all times tell the individual that you will not be able to keep confidentiality if they disclose something to you which you cannot keep to yourself for these reasons.