Does your grade-schooler have difficulty “reading” other people’s body language? Or misunderstand what’s happening in social situations? Here’s how you can help your child pick up on common social cues.
1. Practice making eye contact.
Encourage your child to look at your eyes when you talk together. When people focus on one another’s, they can see expressions change. (Make sure your eyes are on your child when you talk together, too.) Ask your child what your expressions mean. If your child doesn’t know, explain the message you were sending.
2. Encourage attention.
Give your child your full attention when you’re talking together. By doing so, you’re setting a great example. Save texting and checking your email for another time. Try not to let your mind wander. If you notice your child spacing off when you’re talking, gently guide attention back to you: “Can you please look at my face when I’m talking to you?”
3. Observe your child’s expressions.
Becoming aware of their own facial expressions — and what they mean — can help kids notice and interpret other people’s expressions. You might say, “Your eyebrows are raised. Are you feeling surprised?” or “That’s a big smile. Tell me what you’re so happy about.”
4. Notice other people’s body language.
Help your child begin to see what other family members are “saying” with their bodies. Playing charades can be a fun way to get kids thinking about communicating through their bodies. Also, point out the behavior of people you see: “The man in that line is tapping his foot and fidgeting. How do you think he feels?” Talk through how characters on TV are feeling based on their body language.
5. Discuss what’s expected in different situations.
Talking to the principal isn’t the same as talking with friends on the playground. Kids who have trouble with social cues might not realize this. Talk together about the different people your child interacts with regularly. Who might get a high five? Who gets a more formal hello?
6. Point out pitch and tone.
Some kids have trouble noticing changes in voice, sometimes called inflections. When that happens, they might miss a bigger message because they’re taking speech too literally. So point out nuances in pitch and tone. Talk through how the same sentence (for example, “Can you please get the mail?”) can be a simple request or an angry demand, depending on how you say it.
7. Practice inflections.
Have your child read aloud to you regularly (if your child is comfortable with that). Choose stories that have lots of dialogue. Kids who do this can practice changing their voice depending on how the characters are feeling or what they’re trying to say. If your child doesn’t read well or doesn’t like reading aloud, you can do the reading — or choose an audiobook at the library.
8. Role-play common scenarios.
Kids who have trouble with social cues can benefit from practicing everyday interactions. Try role-playing different situations together. Respond to things your child says or does using body language and expressions. Ask what messages you’re sending out and how your child might react to them.
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About the author
About the author
Lexi Walters Wright is the former Community Manager at Understood. As a writer and editor, she helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.
Molly Algermissen, PhD is an associate professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center and clinical director of PROMISE.