Talking is Teaching

There has been much recent attention focused on how important social-emotional skills are for success in school and in life.  In order to thrive, we must learn to regulate our emotions, to persevere, to maintain attention, and to cooperate and work with others.

Since 90% percent of physical brain development occurs in the first three years of life, when a baby forms 700 new neural connections per second, the best time to begin developing these skills is at birth.  We know the value of talking to your baby, even at an age when all they can do is babble.  Not only do infants and toddlers who are exposed to many words, including many unique words, develop larger vocabularies and do better in school than children who hear fewer words, but now research reveals that how you talk to your baby can impact his or her social skills as reported in the Washington Post article entitled, “How you talk to your baby now can impact his or her social skills later.”

Using Mind-Related Comments to Develop Social-Emotional Skills

It used to be thought that social skills are something with which a person is born.  However, social skills can be modeled and taught, especially through early exposure to language.  The language parents and caregivers use with infants and toddlers can help foster strong social-emotional skills as they develop and mature.

Researchers have been studying the kind of language that mothers use when they play and interact with their babies.  They have become particularly interested in what they call “mind-related comments,” which are what the mother says to her baby about what she believes her baby is thinking through the actions and behavior he or she displays, including labeling the emotions she believes her baby is feeling. For example, if an infant is having difficulty opening a door on a toy and begins fussing, the mother might comment to her baby that the baby appears “frustrated” because she is not able to accomplish the task.

The researchers followed up with the children at ages five and six to assess their ability to understand the social concept, such as a prank, misunderstanding, or lie, that was represented in a story they read.  What they found was that children whose parents made more of these mind-related comments when the child was an infant or toddler were better able to discern the social message in these stories when they were in kindergarten.  According to Elizabeth Kirk, lecturer at the University of York and lead author of this study, “these findings show how a mother’s ability to tune-in to her baby’s thoughts and feelings early on helps her child to learn to empathize with the mental lives of other people. This has important consequences for the child’s social development, equipping children to understand what other people might be thinking or feeling.”

It is for these reasons that the importance of social-emotional learning is worked into each component of the early childhood and parenting education program at Excellence Baby Academy.  We focus on the emotional lives and worlds of the babies and their families and, in doing so, we make sure to apply an emotionally-responsive practice during our weekly groups as well as our other activities and events.  Since emotions for young children are new and often times overwhelming, we always acknowledge the babies’ emotions and make a point to provide language to describe them as a way to help the babies begin to understand their emotions and develop the ability to talk about their feelings rather than act them out.  Much like the researchers recommend mind-related comments for infants and toddlers, EBA staff models how to observe, infer, and label the babies’ feelings through their actions and behavior.

To reinforce the importance of labeling emotions and making mind-related comments, we play “emotional charades” during our parenting education unit on emotional development.  To play emotional charades, parents pick feeling words out of a hat and then act them out to illustrate how emotions are first communicated to children through facial expressions and gestures and the importance of of putting words to the emotions so children can learn to express themselves verbally rather than physically.

Talk is the most effective, and least expensive, developmental toy we can give our children.  As this study demonstrates, talking to children about their feelings, even when they are too young to respond, is important to help them develop strong social-emotional skills which are critical for success.  To read about this study, please go here.

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