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Communication: Children and Youth

As a manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that your staff have a working knowledge of communication milestones for children and youth, as well as have the skills to create environments and experiences that support communication competence.

  • Describe the communication developmental milestones for children and youth.
  • Identify the communication strategies that are essential for all children regardless of age or ability.
  • Identify specific communication strategies staff should use for children based on their age or ability.




Think about your early experiences with language. Was there a favorite song your grandfather sang to you? A rhyming game that you played with your sibling? Or the ritual of a nightly bedtime story before the lights were turned off? Our earliest experiences with language set the stage for our future success as an effective communicator. This lesson will focus on the developmental stages and supports that all children need regardless of age or dis/ability. For a more detailed list of age-specific supports, review the direct-care tracks for this course. Also remember, effective managers are instructional leaders in the program. You can promote communication between children, staff members, and families by moving around the program and communicating! Talk to children and youth each and every day. This builds community and promotes development. This lesson will give you the tools to understand communication and make decisions that promote communication.

The Essentials

Effective communication skills are integral to children’s self-expression, development of social relationships, and learning. According to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, child care and learning programs help children understand that language allows them to organize and express their views and questions about the world, demonstrate their growing expertise, and communicate with other people. When it comes to supporting communication competence, all children, regardless of age or ability, need the following:

  • Opportunities to understand and comprehend language (receptive communication)
  • Opportunities to use words and speak (expressive communication)
  • Opportunities to engage in communication exchanges with peers or adults (conversation skills)

Print- and Language-Rich Environments

Children need to be immersed in language. The sounds infants hear and the patterns in sentence structure lay the groundwork for their developing communication skills. As children grow and develop, their communication skills become more sophisticated. The importance of exposing children to a rich and varied vocabulary starting at birth can’t be stressed enough. Several landmark research studies (e.g., Hart & Risley, 1995) demonstrate that a vocabulary deficit early in life only widens over time and affects future academic and life success. As a manager, you make decisions that influence the ways that staff members promote communication through environments, experiences, and interactions. It is critical that you have a firm understanding of why and how language is important. This will help you allocate resources amongst the many competing demands in your program. “Management by moving around the program” is a concept that has been presented throughout the VLS. This applies to communication with children, as well. As you move through your programs you should observe the following to ensure print- and language-rich environments are available to all children and youth:

  • Children should be exposed to a great deal of language. While there are times when a classroom or school-age program might be relatively quiet, it should rarely be silent. Children talking with staff members and one another should never be forbidden.
  • The environment should be arranged in ways that promote children’s communication. You can refer back to the Learning Environments course for more detail.
  • Staff should provide many opportunities for children to talk by listening more and asking open-ended questions. Listen for staff members who say things like, “Tell me more about that…”, “What happened next?”, or “Why do you think…?”
  • Make sure staff members label classroom items that are important to children; however, encourage staff not to label unnecessary items for the sake of labeling. Too many labels can be overwhelming and distracting. Labels should include children's home language(s).
  • All learning areas should include books. Books are not just for the library center or reading area. Provide reference material in school-age program areas, sturdy books in outdoor spaces, and soft books in infant rooms. In addition to books, there should be a variety of other print materials such as magazines, menus, and catalogs.
  • Materials that can be used to draw, scribble and write on should be readily available to children. The more interesting the objects are, the more likely children will use them. A pencil that’s sparkly, glitter pens, stickers, stamps, etc., are attention grabbers.
  • Premade journals or notebooks should be provided so children can have their own place to record their work.

Supervise & Support


It has been said that we learn to read until grade three, and then after grade three we read to learn. Research shows that there are several key areas of language and communication development that must be emphasized. These include phonics, fluency, word recognition, and comprehension. In fact, children entering kindergarten who can identify letters, beginning sounds, and rhyming words are better readers at grade three.

As a manager, you should help staff members support these emerging skills by:

  • Working with supervisors, trainers, or coaches to ensure that staff members receive training on developmentally appropriate instructional strategies. For example, do preschool teachers know and use strategies to enhance rhyming skills? Do infant caregivers sing and do movement games with babies? These can all be topics of short training events.
  • Ensuring staff members have the resources they need. Stock the professional library of the child development programs with books of finger plays and rhymes. Ensure school-age programs have access to reference books, popular pre-teen fiction, and comic books.
  • Providing adequate resources. Be sure that classrooms and programs have the materials they need in good condition. Are there magnetic letters? Pens, paper, markers? Word puzzles? Games that enhance language and literacy (like Taboo or Catchphrase in school-age programs)?
  • Ensuring environments are ready to support communication and literacy. For example, can you gather resources to create an outdoor stage for performing plays?

Supporting All Learners

Children who have developmental disabilities may communicate and express language differently. For these children, the curriculum, learning environment, and experiences in your program may need to be adapted. Take a few seconds to think about what your program is currently doing to ensure you address the communication needs of all children.

Some children in your program may have conditions that affect their language and communication development, including developmental delays, autism, neurological and perceptual disorders, or vision, hearing, speech, or language impairments. Children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSPs) have a specific plan to help them meet their personal goals, and very often these children will need changes or adaptations to curriculum, classroom environment, and daily routines.

Children with autism or developmental disabilities may have difficulties with communication. While some children may be able to engage in play and other experiences with verbal prompts and directions, others may need visual supports to make activities, routines, or instructions more meaningful and easier to understand.

Staff may have to adjust the speed or sound of their voices by speaking more clearly or at a slower pace for children with hearing impairments. They may also have to check that children understood what is being said more often than they would normally. Children with visual impairments may use Braille, large print, or big books. Other children may require the use of assistive technology. This may include communication devices that enable them to explore their surroundings and interact with others. Make sure all children and families feel welcome and involved. The Kids Included Together (KIT) program can be a valuable resource for ideas. Staff can also consider Building Blocks and Kara’s Kit. These resources from the Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children provide practical ways to help children communicate successfully.

Though most children develop in the same sequence, the rate at which development occurs varies and can be influenced by a variety of factors. As a manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that staff members observe children and youth regularly and use their knowledge of child development to bring forth any concerns they might have. While looking out for developmental delays is important for all ages, it is especially vital for infants and toddlers. Delays in communication in very young children may be indicative of concerns in other developmental areas. Remind staff of your program's policies and procedures for making referrals so children can get the support they need as quickly as possible.

For children who may not be following the typical rate of development or who have an identified disability, ensure that staff do the following:

  • Adjust expectations so they are realistic. This doesn’t mean that staff should lower their expectations, rather it means that they should be more realistic in the setting of expectations based on where children are developmentally.
  • Modify curriculum goals so children are supported in achieving what is possible for them developmentally.
  • Accommodate so children and youth experience success. Making small changes in the environment or adding adaptive materials can help children feel successful regardless of where they are developmentally.
  • Collaborate with other professionals. Make time for staff members to meet with related service providers like speech and language pathologists, behavior therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, audiologists, nurses, etc. When possible, go to these meetings, as well. Also be sure to connect with people who can provide training on specific needs you encounter in your program. Access local resources or contracted service providers to give your staff training on working with children with disabilities.

Age-Specific Considerations

While there are broad experiences that all children need, the ways those experiences are provided can be very different among age groups. For example, all children need a print- and language-rich environment, but the types of books in a toddler room will be very different from those in a school-age program. Additionally, it’s important for staff members to recognize that just as in other areas of development, individual differences between children exist and children’s communication skills will vary.

Managers are generally responsible for evaluating the performance of staff members. To do this part of your job well, you must have a thorough understanding of how staff members promote children’s development. This section will provide you with detailed information about what to look for when you observe staff members in infant, toddler, preschool, and school-age programs.

Experiences That Promote Development


Infants are able and ready communicators. Their need to connect with the people around them spurs the development of early communication skills. Infants’ ability to communicate grows as they interact and communicate with others. As they gaze at something that moves, smile at a familiar face, and point to a recognized object, infants are communicating. Infants communicate through gestures, sounds, facial expressions, movements and language. In fact, the sounds, tones, and patterns of speech that an infant hears early on sets the stage for learning a specific language.

As a manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that staff members working with infants:

  • Understand the developmental milestones for communication as evidenced by their classroom environment and the use of developmentally appropriate experiences.
  • Observe infants on a regular basis to identify where they are developmentally so staff members can plan experiences and activities that best support development and learning.
  • Reach out to families of infants to learn about their preferred ways of communication.
  • Respond to infants’ communication attempts in order to build and extend what they are expressing.
  • Follow infants’ leads, cues, and preferences, and provide new words and ideas to describe infants’ understanding of their experiences.
  • Engage in parallel talk using language to describe what children are experiencing during routines.
  • Embed songs, rhymes and finger plays into daily routines and experiences
  • Read to infants frequently, and provide opportunities for them to engage with books and printed materials.
  • Speak to infants using key words and phrases in their home language.


The need to move spurs communication development for toddlers. Toddlers are highly motivated to move, and new experiences prompt their increased use of language. Toddlers begin to understand words, express themselves using words, and learn the rules of conversation in their language.

As a manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that staff members working with toddlers:

  • Understand the developmental milestones for communication as evidenced by their classroom environment and the use of developmentally appropriate experiences.
  • Observe toddlers on a regular basis to identify where they are developmentally so experiences and activities that best support their development and learning can be planned.
  • Follow toddler’s leads, cues, and preferences in order to describe their actions, interests, and feelings.
  • Provide simple and positive safety messages.
  • Provide one-step directions, adding more steps as toddlers demonstrate the ability to carry them out.
  • Talk with toddlers about the events of the day, including new words in conversations.
  • Support the use of words instead of hands to solve problems.
  • Embed songs, rhymes and finger plays into daily routines and experiences.
  • Read to toddlers frequently and provide opportunities for them to engage with books and printed materials.
  • Incorporate alternative ways and systems of communication, based on individual needs (e.g., using pictures or visual cues to foster communication).
  • Speak to toddlers using key words and phrases in their home language.


The need to understand the world around them spurs the communication development of preschoolers. Communication skills grow dramatically during the preschool years. Preschoolers begin to use longer sentences, increase their vocabulary, hold conversations with other children, and start to understand grammar. They not only talk about what is happening, they also talk about things that happened in the past and things that will happen in the future. Learning to be a successful communicator at this age includes sending clear messages, understanding messages from others, and using the unspoken rules of conversation, which they get to practice daily with their teachers, families, and each other.

As a manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that staff members working with preschoolers:

  • Understand the developmental milestones for communication, as evidenced by the classroom environment and the use of developmentally appropriate experiences.
  • Observe preschoolers on a regular basis to identify where they are developmentally and to identify their interests so teachers can plan experiences and activities that best support development and learning.
  • Provide daily opportunities to participate in activities that help preschoolers learn new skills or practice existing skills in fun, stimulating, and supportive ways.
  • Utilize specific strategies across the day to support communication development. This involves planning developmentally appropriate communication and language experiences, responding to children, and asking children meaningful questions that enable them to express themselves.
  • Provide multiple and varied opportunities throughout the day to hear, listen to, and use language with other peers and adults.
  • Foster preschoolers' communication skills by encouraging them to tell elaborate stories, interpret and reinvent their lives in drawings or writings, create fascinating worlds through make-believe, organize their day-to-day experiences, express themselves, navigate social relationships, and problem-solve when difficulties arise or when things don’t go as expected.
  • Speak to preschoolers using key words and phrases in their home language.

School-Age Children

The need to relate to the world around them spurs the communication development of school-age children. School-age children become more thoughtful and purposeful. They reflect and think more logically about their lives and the world around them. This makes them ask thoughtful and sometimes difficult questions. As school-age children become more independent, they tend to question authority. This can be alarming for families, but it is a very normal part of development. Children may also question teachers and staff members as they take risks and test boundaries. School-age children can also be influenced by their surroundings and environment, which may affect the way they communicate. They may begin to use language from a popular television show, or what they hear from their friends. School-age children may also begin changing their communication methods depending on where they are. They might speak one way to a family member or teacher, and then adopt a different approach when speaking with peers.

As a manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that staff members working with school-age children:

  • Communicate respectfully with school-agers; value their feelings, thoughts, age, and intelligence.
  • Respond truthfully to school-agers' questions even when the question is difficult.
  • Practice patience with slang or language that school-agers are adopting from TV or peer groups.
  • Act as role models and respond to school-agers' conversations about text messaging, social media, and other electronic communication by discussing strategies for safe technology use.
  • Practice active listening to indicate that you are paying attention and understanding what school-agers have to say.

The way we communicate today has been drastically changed by new technologies. We can access and send information across the globe in an instant from a device that can fit in our pocket. It is important for you to understand the various ways school-age children may be using technology to communicate.

Social Networking and New Media

As a manager, you should be familiar with technology and be on the lookout for any misuse happening within your program. Check with your program to identify technology policies. You should consider issues with text messaging, social media apps, and internet use. Safety can become a concern because texting and social media is instant and can be difficult for staff and families to monitor.

Social media is another technology that has drastically changed the way we communicate. Social media like Snapchat, Tiktok, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, and Instagram have made it easy to communicate and to share information and photos with just about anyone. Unfortunately, not everyone uses social media responsibly. As this type of communication has gained popularity, there has been a rise in cyberbullying, identity theft, and activity by online sexual predators. As a manager, you should be familiar with social media and be on the lookout for any misuse happening within your program.

In Summary

As a manager, your responsibility is to ensure that staff members have the knowledge and materials they need to support the individual needs of the children and youth. Observing staff will assist you in evaluating their knowledge of development and their skills in planning and implementing age-appropriate activities. Providing ongoing professional development and maintaining safe and stimulating environments supports your staff as they support children and youth.


Randomly choose a classroom or program space to observe from each age group. Observe for evidence that the individual communication development needs are being met. While observing, use the listed age specific considerations for promoting communication as a guide. Then, complete the Supporting Communication Development Plan to support staff with the coaching and resources they need in order to better support the communication development of children and youth.


Spend some time looking at the resources identified in the Communication Resources document. Are there any that could be useful for your program? If so, create an area in your staff and family resource spaces to spotlight information on activities to promote communication development.


You recently observed in a classroom and noted that the environment is not print- and language-rich. How do you respond?
True or False? It is important for caregivers and teachers to build and extend upon subjects in which children of all ages express interest.
Finish this statement: A delay in an infant’s and toddler’s communication is…
References & Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). Developmental Milestones.

Cooper, P. J., & Simonds, C. (1999). Communication for the Classroom Teacher. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

Copp, S. B., Cabell, S. Q., Gabas, C., Slik, D., & Todd, J. (2022). The Rising Star Scaffolding Guide: Supporting Young Children’s Early Spelling Skills. The Reading Teacher, 76(4).

Derman-Sparks, L., LeeKeenan, D., & Nimmo, J. (2015). Leading Anti-bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Hanft, B. E., Rush, D. D., & Sheldon, M. L. (2004). Coaching Families and Colleagues in Early Childhood. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (n.d.). Principles of Effective Family Engagement.

National Communication Association (2014). What is Communication?

Sandall, S., Schwartz, I., Joseph, G., and Gauvreau, A. (2019) Building Blocks for Teaching Preschoolers with Special Needs, Third Edition. Brookes Publishing.

Siegel-Causey, E., & Guess, D. (1989). Enhancing nonsymbolic communication interactions among learners with severe disabilities. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.