10 Tips For Communicating With Preschoolers

FInd a Speech Therapist Using TherapyfindR

A Directory and Community of Speech-Language Pathologists

10 Tips For Communicating With Preschoolers

By, Jeri Zimmerman Rubino, MA-SLP


Many of us come into parenthood with little preparation, and a lot of dreams, hopes and desires. Communicating with preschoolers can be difficult – I know, that’s putting it mildly!  Even the best of them can sometimes bring us to our end, push our buttons, set us off etc! In fact, many of them seem to have an uncanny knack of knowing exactly which button will be most disturbing and create the greatest net effect – ATTENTION!!

As we journey through our years as parents, we will find techniques that work for us and we’ll refine them to suit our unique styles.  The suggestions I’m sharing are the benefit of parenting two children who are now teenagers AND nearly 20 years as a Licensed Pediatric Speech Language Pathologist.  I have worked exclusively with little ones from 18 months to 5 years with speech, feeding and language difficulties and children of all ages with articulation issues.  The following suggestions will help you to communicate more efficiently, more kindly, with better results.

First things first – in an effort to fully disclose, we need to get a couple of things straight.  This isn’t rocket science though it’s based completely in science.  Each of these suggestions has tons of research to back up the positive effects. While these tools aren’t magic, when employed they will help improve communication and positively shape behavior. Change is not immediate; nothing will change in a day.  Every day builds on the experiences of the days before.  Consistency is key!

If you consider what you want the end result to be, then operate accordingly.  You may be working towards: a closer more loving relationship with your child, a warm, comfortable, easy environment within your home and a child who is respectful of you and of other’s needs.  This is all possible if you consider how you talk with and communicate with your child, the way your child receives the information, and the dynamic between you and your child.  You will have a greater chance at happiness because you will become a more effective and more considerate parent.

This article is broken down into 3 distinct but related sections:

10 tips for communicating more effectively with your toddler & preschooler
Emotional components to consider when talking to your preschooler
Changing your behavior and changing theirs

Where to begin? YOU NEED A PLAN – don’t set out to incorporate each and every one of these techniques every single time.  My friend and business coach, Lisa Montanaro, Certified Professional Organizer, Business & Life Coach, and Motivational Speaker says “A resolution without a plan is simply a wish.” How true!


Today – choose only one behavior changing communication goal for the week and be kind to yourself. 
Don’t give up, stay the course and you will make small noticeable changes over time. 
Focus on the positive changes you’re making – whatever they are.  You need to celebrate your small achievements just as you celebrate your child’s.  As you change, so will your child.
Change isn’t simple, but it’s absolutely attainable!

10 Tips For Talking With Your Preschooler

  1. Crouch down – you’re not so big when you crouch down to their level, you’re not as intimidating
  2. Speak in a calm voice – if you think about it, children at the preschool age have actually relied on their senses to comprehend the world for the most part, so their awareness of our tone and our body language is even keener and more developed than their ability to comprehend our words. 
  3. Create and maintain eye contact as often as possible – hard to do when you’re busy attending to other kids or trying to get dinner on the table – but remember small steps, a little at a time. 
  4. Be aware of your facial expressions & body language – it’s important to “match” your desire to effectively communicate with your child with the facial expressions and body language that go a long with it.  If your child is conscious of your anger and displeasure, he or she is going to miss the message if you look like a scary monster even if you do crouch down and touch them.  It will be confusing for them.  Always remember, you catch more flies with honey than you do with salt! Keep your message and your tone consistent with your facial expressions and body language.
  5. Use only a few words – kids can understand our feelings/emotions to a point, for instance – we can tell our child, “mommy’s a little tired and I need 5 minutes,” “I will play with you in 5 minutes.”  They can’t understand a long, wordy description of your day and the reasons you’re tired.  To give them a audiovisual tool to help them understand what five minutes “looks like,” download a visual timer on your smart phone and let them know that when the circle disappears, you’re going to be ready to play.  You can also use a kitchen timer for an audio signal letting them know when you’re ready to play.
  6. As an aside, the visual timer and kitchen timer are great ways to help your children understand temporal parameters like when it’s time for bath, bed, turn taking. “When you hear the buzzer or the circle disappears, it’s time to, get in the bath, (put on our pajamas switch toys).”
  7. Touch your child while you’re talking with him or her, you’re connecting with them silently letting them know you love them and that you’re completely focused on them
  8. Children have a limited vocabulary, they may not be able to articulate why they are upset.  Help them by giving them words
    1. Are you upset or angry?
    2. Did Johnny take away that train?
    3. Did it made you mad?
  9. Look for social stories on the web that may help your children make sense of their feelings or situations they are not yet able to articulate. Help them with strategies to self regulate
    1. I see you’re upset; do you want to take a minute to calm down?
    2. Would you like to sit down for a few minutes/lay down etc.
    3. I see you’re upset, would you like a hug?
    4. Would you like me to rub your back for a few minutes, it looks like you’re sad/upset?
  10. The Mack daddy of them all………….get ready for it………….

Clearly communicate consequences and follow through!

How often have you heard yourself say something like, “If you don’t _____, then you will/will not  (be able to) _____!”  This is meaningless unless you actually follow through with the consequence!!!! Stay focused on your intent and your message! You are the creator of change – you are your child’s captain and you NEED to be in charge.  This makes them feel safe and that safety helps them navigate the world more efficiently.

Emotional Components To Consider When Talking To Your Preschooler

1.  Speak positively about your child; Don’t speak negatively

Sometimes we think that just because they’re little, they don’t understand or can’t hear us when we’re talking about them.  They know – if they don’t understand the words, they understand the feelings you’re demonstrating by the tone of your voice, your posture, your mood and whatever behavior they engaged in that upset you.
Conversely, don’t speak negatively about them in front of them – they have ears and feelings…………
If possible, don’t speak negatively about them at all - I believe whole heartedly that this is absolutely possible and necessary.  How you perceive your child has everything to do with how you communicate with them now, and how you bond and relate over time.  Trust me, if your child thinks that you think negatively about them, this will unhappily affect your relationship going forward.

2.  We can do the opposite too- See your child in a positive light, think of all the great things about our child and you will begin to see them in a more positive light

Using words such as stubborn, hard headed, annoying, thick headed, unbending, difficult, etc. to describe your child’s behavior creates a mold you create for your child to fit into.  This will become the way you think of him/her.  It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy and does not yield positive results.  A self fulfilling prophecy (Robert Merton) a situation where a false definition in the beginning evolves a new behavior which makes the original false conception true. 

3.  Consider every incident “singular”

If we consider every incident singularly, then we can attend to the situation and not the child.  You’ve heard this one before, respond to the incident, not the child, “That was not a good choice,” versus “you’re a bad boy.” He is not a bad boy, what he did was make a poor choice.

Changing Your Behavior and Changing Theirs  

Everything is not a choice, but we can still offer choices – So often I hear parents ask their children, “Do you want to eat lunch?,” “Do you want to go to school?,” “Do you want to go to bed?”  These are not choices, but when you ask if they want to, you are offering them an opportunity to say no when in reality, there is no choice at all!

This often leads to an unpleasant interaction and a lot of confusion.  A child might think, “Well, if Mom just asked if I want to go to bed, then it seems I’m actually allowed to stay up longer and play if I want to, so I’ll say “no”.”  But that’s not what you’re really saying at all!  Instead try, “It’s time for lunch, do you want peanut butter and jelly or chicken?” or “It’s time to go to bed now, would you like your blue pj’s or your green ones?”

Oh, while we’re on the subject, asking for their agreement isn’t always the best way to foster compliance! 

“It’s time for your bath now, ok?”

“We’re going to go to school now, ok?”

“It’s time to get ready for bed now, ok?”

Do Not Ask When You Are Not Asiking or Offering A Choice, This is what I call the 50/50 theory of toddlers and preschoolers:  these little ones know that if you’re 50% likely to follow through with a consequence, there’s still a 50% chance they will get what they want. I really have to laugh when a little one gets one over on me, but I need to reflect and evaluate how that happened (remember, they are very crafty).  I wonder, “Did he just work me or did I work him?” and “what changes can I make next time?”  Did he/she just work you? Perhaps they need to harass you longer, cry harder and for a longer period of time, but they like their odds of succeeding – so they will continue.  In the end, you will be frustrated, possibly even angry and in this moment, you are not likely to behave well, so stop. DO NOT GIVE IN or he/she will have worked you.  You are the adult, you are in charge – stay focused and remember how much they like the odds and how far they are willing to go to win.  You need to develop the same tenacity.  It’s not convenient and it’s not always easy BUT if you’re consistent, it won’t be a problem for long.

Did you just work him/her?


  1. Be sure that the consequence you assign is:
    1. Something YOU are able to follow through with
    2. Something you are committed to doing
    3. Something that matches the level of infraction (small consequences for small infractions and larger ones for bigger ones)
    4. Something meaningful to the child (something he/she wants and will miss)
    5. Something temporally relevant.  (It’s not going to work if you say they can’t go to the park on Saturday when this happens on a Wednesday.)It’s best to make the consequence as close in time to the behavior.
    1. Big hugs and kisses (touch is a powerful motivator)
    2. Big smiles
    3. Kind words, “I’m so proud of you for………!”
    4. Rewards – more time with you or a special project

It doesn’t take as long as you might think to change this behavior.  Even if you’ve been wishy-washy up to this point, you can take a stand today and change your relationship forever.  If you begin today, if you decide today that you are not going to allow your child’s crafty management to take you to a place of unpleasantness, you will change the dynamic in your home and your relationship forever.

FINALLY – praise often! Praise yourself and praise your child.

Everyone likes to know when they’re doing a good job.  Make your praise genuine, small praise for small things and more dramatic/emphatic praise when something bigger is called for.  This is like candy for little ones – they are always seeking attention, while they’ll take all they can in whatever form (negative or positive), they really do love it when their parent is pleased with them more than anything else.  They feel loved and valued.  They feel good, happy and successful.  This positive feeling will foster future positive behavior.

Be good to yourself – when you think back and reflect on how you handled a certain situation, be objective but kind.  If you made one small change, own it, be proud of it, and pat yourself on the back for it.  It’s the combination of all of these small changes made over time that will change your communication style, your effectiveness in managing behavior and changing the dynamic in your home and family.  When you have a plan, you are able to follow it, tweak it, refine it and employ it.  The long lasting effects are remarkable! If you learn from your mistakes, then there’s value in the mistake.

Effective communication and improved behavior is attainable through the ways we choose to communicate with our little ones and you are the captain of your ship!  Happy sails!

Need help answering some more of your questions?  We can help with TherapyfindR Concierge

Jeri Rubino has been a practicing pediatric therapist for nearly 20 years.  She graduated Boston University with a degree in Mass Communications and Public Relations.  After working in the field of communications for several years, she realized her passion and prowess for working with children which led to her study of speech-language communication disorders.  Jeri received a Master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology and Audiology from CUNY Lehman.   









09 July 2013 16:41
by Jeri Zimmerman Rubino, MA-SLP