How toddlers communicate without words

2 July 2019

3MT Yasmine

Yasmine Serhan, a Jordanian New Zealander, is a registered early childhood teacher currently studying for her masters degree at the University of Waikato, researching cross-cultural communication among infants.

Yasmine earned a highly commended in the university’s 2019 masters Three-minute Thesis (3MT) competition at Waikato, outlining her research in three minutes with a single PowerPoint slide.

“I was really lucky when I came to New Zealand. I had no English but my teachers made me feel proud of who I was and created an inclusive setting,” Yasmine says.

“My own learning experiences are what influenced me to study teaching in the first place, and then working in an early childhood centre prompted me to research how students learn in non-verbal ways, because there’s not a lot of research in that area.”

It’s difficult to record infant communication when they have so little vocabulary, but Yasmine says children are born with non-verbal skills and yet quickly learn to interact and respond, so it’s important to understand that development. For more than a year she observed infants at the early childhood centre where she works and talked to parents and teachers. With ethics approval, she started video recording infants’ interactions and used these to form the basis of her study.

Toddlers at play

What was clear was that the home environment influenced how children interacted with their peers, Yasmine says. “One mother who was pregnant had encouraged her infant to lift her shirt and touch her stomach. This child tended to communicate with other children through touch, right down to lifting their shirts. Another child whose parents had made a point of teaching body parts; head, shoulders, knees and toes, was strongly independent, wanting to demonstrate her belly herself.

“What’s really special about my study is that I also got to interview the parents and go through the video alongside them,” says Yasmine. “And that gave me a deeper insight into the infants’ ways of communication. So the analysis of the video brings together my perspective as well as the perspectives of the parents.”

She says learning comes down to environment, encouragement and acknowledgement. “So it’s important for ECE teachers and parents to be aware of the different non-verbal ways these young children communicate with each other and to know how we can foster that development.”

Yasmine is coming to the end of her Master of Education degree, developing a non-verbal teaching framework for ECE teachers to use in their day-to-day teaching.

She entered the university’s three-minute thesis competition after a parent at her work said she was good at explaining things in a simple manner. “I also realised that not many people will read a 40,000 word document; people want to know the raw data, why it matters, and what change my study might bring, in a non-academic presentation.”

Yasmine plans to complete her masters thesis in August this year. Her research feeds into a wider study that her supervisor Professor Linda Mitchell from the Faculty of Education is leading, looking at refugee and immigrant children and their sense of belonging in New Zealand through early childhood education.

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