Many years ago, I first heard that communication was more about body language than words. As an OT who worked with children who had motor planning challenges, I was fascinated by how limiting their inability to imitate was on communication. Ever since Albert Mehrabian’s famous study in 1967, people have quoted his formula, misquoted it and speculated about it’s validity. (Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal Communication. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction.) His striking claim established that communication is 55% body language, 38% tone of voice, and 7% spoken word. Others have stated everything from 60% body language and 40% words to 90% body language and 10 percent spoken word. The important takeaway here is that body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and context, are all essential to being an effective communicator.
My friend has a new baby. It has been a blast watching this 5-month old stare at her mother’s face. She mimics her mother’s expressions by smiling or displaying scowl marks on her little forehead. Her miniature body moves in accord with her moods. Excitement elicits wild arm and leg flapping and high-pitched squeals. Sadness gives way to the pouting lower lip and tight limbs pulled close to her body. This little one has no words but man… can she communicate! What happens when a child in school does not attend to his teachers’ face because he simply doesn’t understand that it is communicating anything? The importance of body language, facial expressions, context and tone of voice has always been important to me – as a teacher, a mom, and an OT. Yet, I STILL need reminders. John, in my social cognition group flips around the room giggling and specifically NOT doing what I ask. When I stop his body, get down to his level and say, “Look at my face. What does this face mean?” and he doesn’t have a clue, I am still surprised. When I say to another, “Listen to my voice. Is this a happy or mad voice?” and Sara can’t tell me, I am still surprised. When all the kids are assuming my favorite yoga pose, child’s pose, on the floor and Gabe is sitting in his chair and talking and I say, “Look at what the other kids are doing. Can you make your body do the same thing?” and he simply sits on the floor, I am still surprised. I don’t mean to imply that if I have a hard time remembering that many kids don’t use nonverbal communication well that you won’t. I do strongly suggest that we are an incredibly verbose society and words are often our first line of action. My go-to activity when I need reminders is to engage the kids in the STOP ‘N GO game featured in our Social Adventures App. This game is played much like Mother May I? but without words. It is important that the leader be an adult so that clear nonverbal communication can be provided. When the leader looks at a child, the child needs to point to her chest to confirm that she knows she is the chosen one. The leader then uses gestures, facial expressions, and body movements to communicate how that child should move forward: big steps, little steps, crawling, jumping, fast, slow, backwards, etc. After this game, the kids are primed to at least try to gain information from the teacher and peers by looking at them. Please check out our Social Adventures App for more activities addressing social interaction. The app also includes 4, 8-week programs to be used with social cognition groups. Most importantly, please consider the impact of non-verbal challenges when you encounter kids who seem to be acting out behaviorally. They may want to follow your direction but just don’t have a body clue!
by Jill Perry, MHA, MS, OTR/L
PHOTO copyright : Lars Plougmann