Communicating and Socializing Non-Verbally

Everyday Arts for Special Education

by Nancy Oliver Volante, EASE Teaching Artist

Communication is a basic need, which allows people to connect, make decisions and choices that will affect their lives, and connect them to a sense of belonging, identity and place. Just because a child cannot speak does not mean that the child does not have a voice. In fact, I am passionate and motivated to believe they do have a voice with a lot to say and express.

Yes, children with little or no speech still have the same communication needs as the rest of us. When teaching and working with non-verbal children, one needs to mindfully find a communication strategy that allows an entry point for learning and socializing. Finding the right entry point takes time, and requires close observation of the attempts and interactions. When working with non-verbal children, I have found that it makes a huge difference in the classroom environment if the needs of each child are assessed as you get to know the children that you are working with. Some non-verbal children have receptive language, which means they can understand what you are verbally communicating to them individually or to the group that they are participating with.  Other children cannot cognitively understand language or have only a limited understanding, but communicate using their body and sometimes sound if it is available to them. Every non-verbal indication, sound or body gesture, means something and is a valid form of communication to be acknowledged.

Effective non-verbal communication and socialization begins with letting go of expectations. During this process, one’s intuition begins to open, resulting in an increased ability to notice every opportunity to acknowledge body language, facial expressions and, believe it or not, silence.

The Greeting Ritual from the Everyday Arts for Special Education curriculum has helped me take on a different communication and socialization strategy and teaching/coaching platform over the years. As I do the Greeting Ritual in the classroom, I allow myself to be the student. I am learning and growing by leaps and bounds as I embody acceptance and communicate through the language of the body, the eyes, and sounds. As I offer my hands to a non-verbal child, I wait and gently speak with the intention of building trust. When the child releases tension and connects, I let them take the lead, whether that is through rhythm, eye contact, sound or gesture.  Shoulders relax; facial expression expands and if eye contact is comfortable for the child they look at you with a sense of gratitude.

I have often noticed that children have trouble with making eye contact. In the beginning, the notion of making eye contact becomes a distraction rather than a casino connection. If a child looks away, there is still a possibility that they are focusing on what you are saying. It’s hard for some children to process verbal information and think about signals from someone’s face at the same time. Given time, non-verbal children will make eye contact at their discretion.

Learning to communicate effectively with a non-verbal child takes an open heart, an awareness of body language, an innate ear for sound, and most of all continued awareness of the different sense of time between you two. The timing is longer rather than shorter when communicating with students or adults that are non-verbal and have processing and/or sensory differences.  Letting go of my preconceived sense of time and accepting different ways of connecting and communicating has allowed me to be creative and innovative when communicating and socializing non-verbally.

(Top Image) Jerome is a non-verbal student who has receptive language. I was working with Jane, who is the speech therapist at the school.

We were working with a movement activity from the Everyday Arts for Special Education Curriculum: Scarves

We asked the class a question:

How can you use the scarves in a different way?

We modeled the answer to our question for the class. Jerome came up with his own way of using the scarves, which was very different than what we had been doing and expressing previously.

Here are some strategies and tips that I have found useful when working with a non-verbal child/children:

1.  Make each of your movements and gestures mean something.

2.  Figure out what is most comfortable for the child, as far as body positioning, so they feel they have the lead in obtaining their personal space.

3.  Keep talking even if there is limited understanding. Sometimes you just can’t know everything when working with a non-verbal child. Your voice will filter in for them somehow.

4.  Eye Contact is a process. Don’t force it.

5. It may not be obvious in the moment, but everything a non-verbal child does has meaning. Being observant of and receptive to these meanings will help you navigate your interaction with mindful responses.