Emory Report

 September 2, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 2

Nonverbal fluency helps
children succeed with peers

Some children just seem to have an easy time with relationships, gliding through daily interactions with almost effortless social behavior. And research has shown that these kids are not only more successful in school, but throughout their lives.

The key to their social success lies in nonverbal communication, said clinical psychologist Marshall Duke, Candler professor and chairman of the Department of Psychology. "Verbal language is the language of the academy or the school, and nonverbal language is the language of relationships," he explained.

In the book Teaching Your Child the Language of Success (Peachtree Publishers, 1996), Duke and his co-authors-clinical psychologist and Candler Professor Stephen Nowicki Jr., and learning disabilities specialist Elisabeth Martin-explain the importance of nonverbal communication and how parents and teachers can help children develop skill in reading and expressing nonverbal language.

This nonverbal communication is more than just "body language," the authors say, and includes facial expressions, gestures, postures, interpersonal distance, clothing, hygiene and sounds that communicate emotion, such as whistling, humming or tone of voice.

The authors estimate that about 10 percent of all children have such severe problems either sending or receiving nonverbal information accurately that they experience social rejection. Nowicki and Duke coined the word "dyssemia" to describe this difficulty in the use of signs and signals-a sort of nonverbal language parallel of dyslexia. Their earlier book, Helping the Child Who Doesn't Fit In, addresses the problems of the dyssemic child.

Language of Success concerns the 80 percent of children who fall somewhere between these two extremes. "These are children who have fairly good nonverbal language abilities, but like verbal language abilities they can always be improved," Duke explained.

He emphasized that this is an educational situation, not a clinical or psychological problem. "It's not a sickness or a disorder," Duke said. "It's just something that kids have to learn, like reading and writing."

The book is actually designed for use by parents and teachers. It includes exercises, programs and activities to help develop children's nonverbal skills and a school-based curriculum that was developed and field-tested at the DePaul School in Louisville, Ky.

The recommended activities include "simple things, like turning the TV on, putting the sound down and seeing if your child can tell how people are feeling by looking at their faces and body postures," Nowicki said.

Although the book is written primarily for parents and teachers of children ages 6 to 14, it's important for parents to address problems with nonverbal communication as early as possible, Nowicki said. Their research has shown that starting at age 3, children who are having problems reading emotions, facial expressions and tones of voice have fewer friends and more conflicts with their peers, and this plays a part in the way these children think about themselves.

"If you have problems at the beginning stages, it's going to be even worse as you get older," Nowicki said, "because relationships don't get simpler-they get more complex and more difficult."

Both Nowicki and Duke have been consultants for the DeKalb County school system for over 20 years, and these two books were primarily an outgrowth of their experiences. In addition, Nowicki said, "Our [own] kids had problems at certain times, and I think that played some part in keeping that ball rolling."

They are not advocating total conformity for children, Duke explained. "We're not saying that everybody has to have friends, and everybody has to act the exact same way. If a child wants to be off by himself or herself, it's perfectly OK. The one that we worry about is the child who wants to be with other kids but can't do it."

-Linda Klein

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