Something strange is happening.
Teachers have begun to notice an uptick in some surprising, seemingly unrelated behaviors. Kids—even from well-off, well-educated families—are having more than the usual amount of trouble asking for help. Working together. Sharing toys. Following along when the teacher points to the blackboard.
In a survey of 1,100 senior primary-school staff in the U.K., nearly four in five said they were worried about poor social skills or speech problems in their young students.
Meanwhile, speech and language therapists are seeing something similar that they’re calling a time bomb in the works: Kids increasingly need help with basic social skills, like learning not to interrupt willy-nilly. A 2014 study in the journal Pediatrics found a 63 percent increase in disability associated with speech problems between 2001 and 2011, though the percentage of kids with disabilities rose just 16 percent. And the biggest increase was among the wealthiest families.
In short, many of the very kids you’d expect would be headed for success are instead struggling with social problems, reading problems, and other troubles.
What’s going on?
One common thread seems to be a basic but critical social skill that many experts fear is falling by the wayside:
Understanding how to have a conversation
We all fixate on those magical first words. But then what? Knowing how to use words with others can make or break a kid’s future, says speech-language pathologist Susan Diamond, of Alameda, California, author of Social Rules for Kids.
Conversing—using the right words in the right way—is a skill kids begin to learn even before ma-ma and bye-bye and keep honing for years.
Nobody’s born knowing how. Nearly all of us picked this up on the fly in the simple interactions we had with our parents and others.
But more and more kids are missing out on these everyday conversation skills that we all take for granted:
1) How to read nonverbal cues
That’s all the stuff that we say without uttering a word. It’s most of what gets communicated!
“Nonverbal behaviors—facial expressions, gestures, intonation, proximity to one another, body language—are 65 to 70 percent of overall communication comprehension,” says Ann-Mari Pierotti, associate director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
From birth our babies track our smiles, tune into whether our tone is happy or angry, follow what we’re looking at. All without words. Later, when they point at something and say, “Dat?” they count on us to name it. When they ask for something and we look puzzled, they think, “Oh, she didn’t get what I said.”
2) How to take turns
You talk, I listen. I talk, you listen. Conversation is like tennis, volleying back and forth.
“Conversational turn-taking starts with games like peekaboo and waving bye-bye,” says Geralyn Timler, director of the Child Language and Social Communication Lab at Miami University in Ohio. “You cue the child to join in and have a back-and-forth interaction, following the child’s lead.”
It’s more intricate than it might seem. When one person is talking, the other has to be quiet and listen. He also has to pay close attention and show with nods or uh-huhs that he’s following along. He has to hold back from interrupting until it’s his turn—and know when that is and what’s expected of him.
3) How to stay on topic
You can’t only talk about Minecraft or horses or your opinions and expect to forge strong social relationships. Being able to converse means staying on the same page with others. It means adding appropriate comments and questions at the right time, and making links between related things and weaving them in. It means refraining from scattered, Dory-like chatter in the middle of something else.
It means learning how to relate to others.
Here’s all it takes to start (and keep) conversation flowing:
Learning how to converse isn’t rocket science. It boils down to two things, speech-language experts say: exposure and practice.
Babies need practice holding conversations with us even before they understand our words. Toddlers need to be encouraged to take their first stabs at joining us in it. And preschoolers and older kids—on up through the teen years!—need to be engaged in lots of face-to-face talk.
All pretty simple, right? Except for this one thing: We have to be more intentional about teaching conversation skills than our own moms or dads ever were.
We adults can get away with scrolling and tapping in front of one another because we’ve already mastered conversation. But not our kids.
“We’re just all so conditioned to use devices,” says ASHA’s Pierotti, who’s also a mom. “We shut out our kids without realizing it. I’m guilty of it too.”
More than half of parents in a 2016 ASHA poll agreed that devices are making it harder to engage in meaningful conversations.
Innocently, we all get sucked down “the rabbit hole,” Pierotti told me: We’re playing with Kiddo at the park. We snap a cute pic. Quick upload to Instagram. There we see Best Friend’s latest post. And another. And another. It’s just a few minutes…but the minutes add up.
Minutes of no nonverbal communication. No back-and-forth. No shared topics. No parental modeling.
Nobody’s sure what counts as “enough” face-to-face conversation for kids to develop the social communication skills they need.
Probably a lot, most experts seem to agree. Almost surely more than our kids are getting now.
First we need to make time to show them the ropes.
“It’s unrealistic to say, ‘Just put the cellphone down!’” Diamond told me. “It’s all about balance—making sure we find ways to spend quality time in different situations, talking about different topics and experiences, attaching the language to what’s going on.”
One way: Commit to just a few low-tech or no-tech habits as a family. It could be certain zones of the house, like the dinner table. Or it could be certain times of day: Before school, bath time, and bedtime are all good because those are natural chances to go 1:1 with our kids. Plan tech-free outings: an after-dinner walk, during outside play, driving to and from school. (ASHA offers more ideas in its new “Digital Diet”.)
The earlier we start, the more our kids will take tech-free times or places for granted. But it’s never too late.
A prime habit to try breaking: Using electronic “shut-up toys,” as experts call them, in cars and restaurants—because they become a slippery slope of no return.
Remember: The younger the child, the more critical it is that we engage them in lots of different kinds of conversations, in varied settings, using more and more new words.
It also helps when we follow the same rules: Kids hate a double-standard around tech use, a University of Michigan study showed.
Don’t just tell. Talk (and listen).
Normal, relaxed, give-and-take conversation is all it takes.
I’d be rich, Timler told me, if I had a buck for every time I issued a direction as a mom: Pick that up. Bring that here. Put your shoes on. Let’s go. Hurry up! That may be effective mom talk, but it’s not true conversation.
Asking questions is a good tactic because it gives turn-taking a nudge. Sprinkle “ask words” into your kid talk: what, when, where, how. “Learning how to ask questions is like building a bridge,” Pierotti says.
Instead of jumping in to solve problems, do this:
When your kid comes home sad because friends left her out or a teacher gave a bad grade she doesn’t understand, what do you do? Step in to try to fix the problem?
Better to role-play a little instead, Diamond says. “Empower kids to solve problems themselves by giving them the language for it: ‘Let’s see, how can we solve this?’ Or ‘What are some good things you could say?’” Point out effective timing, facial expressions, and words to use.
Make language part of family fun.
A few ideas:
- Focusing on talk during meals. Need ideas? Check Harvard’s The Family Dinner Project or Table Topics: Family Edition.
- Reading and storytelling. It’s impossible to read too much to kids, Pierotti says. “It has to be topic areas that are interesting to them, so then you talk about it.”
- Toys that can be manipulated. Another plus to open-ended toys like blocks and pretend props is that you’re practically forced to talk about them more.
- Games that get everyone interacting. Pierotti likes Charades, Apples to Apples, Scattergories, Taboo, and Clue.
One way that can be overlooked, especially in an era of academic preschools, nanny care, and solo play on computers: playing with other kids. Play—especially pretend and physical play—is a huge way kids develop all kinds of social skills, especially social communication, says Timler.
Explain why talking to people matters.
Kids can be oblivious. “Explain what people think of you if you don’t look them in the eye and say hello,” Timler says. “Your kids might not even realize they’re giving a negative impression.”
Get help if you’re seeing red flags.
These are among the signs of social-communication problems, Diamond says:
- Having almost no friends or playdates
- Lots of meltdowns (which often stem from the inability to communicate needs)
- Having limited language (Rule of thumb: able to put two words together at age 2)
- Not talking
A 2- to 3-year-old should be able to look at the person talking, say “Hi” and “Bye” and “Please” with reminders, and use verbal turn-taking and nonverbal communication to show dislike or pleasure or to ask for things. By 3, your child should be able to tell a little story about what happened, say, in preschool today, Timler says.
Good things happen to good conversationalists.
(And by “good conversationalist” I don’t mean a junior Jimmy Kimmel or Terry Gross. Just a kid who can keep up with the three basics: reading nonverbal cues, taking turns, and staying on topic.)
1) They focus better in school.
Having basic social-communication skills allows kids to follow along when teachers point to the blackboard and stay on topic during lessons—right from the start of school.
Maybe not surprisingly, kids with speech and language impairment have a four to five times greater risk of reading trouble in grade school, according to a 2015 report in Pediatrics. Those problems follow them into adulthood, and poor learners tend to earn lower wages, it found.
2) They can advocate for themselves.
Being able to “read” others and know how to talk to them gives kids the power to stand up for themselves, Diamond says. “Every child should be able to raise a hand in class,” she says. Not only can they better ask for help, but they can challenge a teacher’s mistake, navigate friend drama, and even fend off bullies, she told me.
With more power, they feel less frustration and show fewer behavior problems.
3) They’re better liked.
Kids like other kids who know how to say “Hi” and talk about stuff. You have more friends when you’re able to sort out differences, share, and empathize—and not hog the conversation or blurt out random things at inappropriate times.
And you can bet that teachers, coaches, and future employers prefer such kids too.
The good news about talking about talking:
One of the cool findings from the ASHA survey: 90 percent of parents, especially younger millennial parents, said that learning about the risks involved with poor communication skills made them more likely to change their own personal tech device habits.
Awareness seems huge, but it makes sense, because we’re the first generation of parents that’s had to worry about being so intentional about conversation.
Fortunately, it’s easy. After all, all we’re talking about is…talk.
“It should be enjoyable—not really work—for parents,” Timler told me. “But it has to happen.”