Expressing our thoughts and feelings can be challenging, especially for children who may have a harder time with vocal communication. However, there are many benefits to children who are non-verbal when parents and caregivers take the time to engage with them.

You can support kids who are non-verbal making efforts to communicate their thoughts or feelings, work to implement visual or non-vocal supports, and show interest in the things that the child is excited about.

Keep in mind that differences in expressive communication do not always mean the child isn’t understanding what’s being communicated to them.

Getting Started

  • Communication involves more than speaking with words. Consider the child’s current communication strategies – sign language, picture exchange systems, communication devices, and even non-verbal cues like facial expressions and behavior. These may help others to understand how a non-verbal child is feeling.
  • Labeling your own thoughts and feelings as they come up can help children better understand feelings.
    • For example, next time someone cuts you off in the parking lot, say, “Wow, I’m feeling frustrated that they took the parking spot I wanted! That’s OK, I can take a deep breath and find a different spot to park.”
  • You can help children start to connect their thoughts and feelings with their facial expressions and behaviors by labeling how they might be feeling in different situations.
    • For example, if your child shows an angry facial expression because a toy does not work the way it is supposed to, you might say, “It looks like you’re feeling mad that the toy isn’t working.”
  • Visuals can be helpful for teaching children to recognize different emotions based on non-verbal cues.
    • Emotion identification can be practiced using flash cards or images of people making different facial expressions that represent different emotions.
    • A five-point rating scale can help teach children to identify different emotions, as well as how big or small an emotion may be. The scale can range from ‘happy or just fine’ (1) to ‘so angry I feel like I might explode’ (5). Try downloading the feelings thermometer from our handling emotions guide to help.
  • Visual cues and prompts can help ease frustration that results from children being unable to express their wants and needs.
    • Break cards can be a good way for children to request time away from difficult or aversive tasks. Download our break cards below.
    • Choice boards could provide a visual chart in which children can select a preferred item when they want it.
    • Children can use pictures or symbols to make requests for help or support.

Building Connections

You can communicate and interact with children in a manner that builds emotional connection and trust. Try these ideas:

  • Find about 10 minutes a day for child-led quality time.
  • Describe the way your children are playing to help them understand the connection between words and actions.
  • Show interest in their preferred items and play.
  • Provide minimal attention to non-desirable behaviors and try to avoid excessive corrections, commands, or questions during child-led quality time.

The Benefits

There are benefits for all when caregivers support and encourage communication with children who are non-verbal.

  • Children will have a way to express difficult thoughts or feelings.
  • Communicating thoughts and feelings allows caregivers to provide support, model appropriate coping and assist with emotional identification and awareness.
  • Distress levels may lower for children and caregivers when they feel capable or identifying and working through feelings together.
  • Children may feel a sense of security when knowing they can confidently express wants or needs.
  • Children can develop an overall positive attitude toward their caregivers when they feel that their caregivers truly care and are interested in them.

Putting it Into Practice

Taking time to communicate with children who are non-verbal will benefit both you and them. Download our guide and our break cards to help.