Adult Role: Non-Verbal Communication - On show

Alison Whelan
Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Using non-verbal communication can be an immensely powerful way to support children’s learning, explains Alison Whelan

Throughout my adult life, I have observed and taken part in many thousands of interactions between adults and children. These experiences helped me understand that the most powerful and appropriate adult responses to babies and children extend far beyond the list provided in Ofsted’s definition of teaching for early years (which includes ‘showing, exploring ideas, encouraging, recalling, setting challenges’). Many of these responses fall into the category of non-verbal communication.

Plenty of people working in early years are already using non-verbal communication to great effect. Unfortunately, these types of responses often go unrecognised as learned skills.


There are estimates that up to 90 per cent of communication between people is passed on non-verbally. There are many aspects to it, including eye contact, facial expressions, posture, gesture, haptics (touch as communication), proxemics (distance between those communicating) and paralanguage (the non-word aspect of speech, including pitch, volume, hesitation noises and intonation).

Human brains are designed to develop after birth, and they do this through the relationships they have with their main caregivers. If the interactions are consistently warm, responsive, loving and the baby becomes securely attached to their main caregiver, then their brain develops optimally, enabling exploration and further brain development through play. This relationship enables the main caregiver to co-regulate the child’s emotions. Repeated experiences of non-verbally and verbally sharing emotions shape babies’ brains to enable learning to progress. It is not until a child is at least four years old that they have the brain structure to deal with difficult emotions on their own (self-regulation).

A baby’s cry communicates distress to the main caregiver. If that adult responds with soothing facial expressions, comforting sounds, and touch, this develops the connections in their brain that, if repeated many times, build the connections that allow them to feel they are not alone, they are loved, and it is safe to explore. Cuddles release oxytocin, which helps them to feel relaxed and safe. Co-regulation continues to be at the heart of our interactions with children in early childhood.

The following example occurred in a three- to four-year-old provision in a nursery school.


Note – In the example below, non-verbal communication is in bold. References from Ofsted’s definition of teaching are in italics.

The educator watched three-year-old Ayşe from a distance, sitting on a floor, a quiet, interested presence. Ayşe worked alone, methodically placing the blocks in a vertical line, sometimes talking to herself. The educator observed and thought about Ayşe – her family, her understanding of English as an additional language, her relationships with others, her interests. Ayşe then said to the educator, ‘Look! I’m making!’

The educator smiled, moved closer to Ayşe’s building, looking with genuine interest, giving eye contact, and nodding. Thinking about tone and volume, she said, ‘I am very interested in your making, Ayşe, thank you for telling me.’

Ayşe and the educator maintained eye contact for a few moments. Ayşe then continued with renewed purpose to select and place each block, making sure the surfaces were touching and as equivalent in length as she could find. This was new and adventurous play for Ayşe.

‘That’s better. I like!’ said Ayşe as she made a sweeping, extended movement with her arm. The educator asked herself if Ayşe was expressing her enthusiasm for the length of her structure. She decided to model some new language, saying, ‘It’s getting long!’, gesturing with her arm, facially expressing wonder. ‘Making it long. I like it,’ said Ayşe.

Just then two children rushed over to see what was happening and accidentally damaged Ayşe’s model. ‘NO!’ shouted Ayşe, looking angry. The educator facially expressed genuine concern to all three children. She offered her hand to Ayşe, who took hold of it. The educator then reached out with her other hand to the two children who had knocked over Ayşe’s model; they both took her hand. The educator held their hands together and made eye contact, looking concerned.

The educator then invited the children to sit down with her and modelled empathy for how each person felt, including facial expressions and body language. She suggested [exploring ideas, setting challenges] Ayşe might invite them to build with her. Ayşe was still for a few moments. The educator waited, genuinely curious. Ayşe said she did not want anyone to build with her. The educator suggested, using tone and intonation, that her friends could build something next to Ayşe’s model, sharing the bricks on the shelf. Ayşe immediately became animated, smiling and said, ‘Yes! Build next to, here, build here!’

The educator smiled and waited. One of the other children said, ‘Thank you!’ The educator praised [encouraging] all three children for the kindness they were showing each other. Ayşe took her friend’s hands, guiding them to the shelf.

The educator continued to encourage co-regulating difficult emotions with each child as they negotiated sharing bricks, where to place them and where to walk, while also modelling language and encouraging listening. The play continued, with more children joining. Ayşe again shouted out in anger and panic as someone knocked her model, ‘DON’T BREAK!’ The educator repeated the above strategies for co-regulation of those difficult emotions.

Later, another child asked Ayşe, ‘Which way can I walk through?’ ‘This way!’ Ayşe responded. The educator praised both children for their kind actions and words, and again modelled empathy for how each person felt this time. With the child who had asked the way to walk, the educator saw evidence of self-regulation, which informed future planning for that child.


We must be clear that the relationships adults have with babies and young children change the biology of their brains and bodies, creating the adults of the future.

The knowledge and skills needed when using non-verbal communication are a key aspect of the profession’s expertise. How well that is done depends upon how much, as a nation, we respect childhood and value and invest in early years care and education.

Alison Whelan is a lead teacher at the Federation of Darlington Nursery Schools. For further information, contact:

Key non-verbal communications from this interaction

Non-verbal communication: Potential meaning

A quiet, interested presence: The adult showing engagement with the child’s world in that moment (as opposed to being physically present but engaged cognitively with something else) indicates to the child that you are available, and that what they are doing is worthwhile.

Thought (by educator): The educator thinking before any other response focuses their mind on that particular child and helps to let go of an outcome-focused response.

Smiled, moved closer: Once the child has invited you into their play, this reinforces the connection, giving them confidence, shows that you care and are interested, and you are ready for their next move.

Paralanguage, thinking about tone and volume: Children know when adults are not sincere, so tone and volume directly influence how children hear you. I was also careful to talk quietly, and eager to maintain a one-to-one connection before others joined in because this was an exciting new exploration for Ayşe.

Thank you: Thanking children for inviting you into their play clearly tells them that they are valued for who they are and what they are doing.

Held hands and made eye contact, looking concerned: When the children felt upset, cortisol may have been released. This gesture of touch signified kindness, and care could mean oxytocin is released. Without co-regulation this may have escalated into more distressed behaviour. Eye contact served the same purpose.

Waited (for child to answer), genuinely curious: The educator is making it clear that thinking is valued. Children need time to process information, so waiting, with curiosity, not with judgement, gives children freedom and permission to do this. This often leads to exciting discoveries for children and educators.

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