Beyond Words

Beyond Words
The art of communication on the road to child safeguarding.

By Lauraine Giacovazzi

 “I need to listen well so that I can hear what is not said.”
Prof. Thuli Madonsela

Early Childhood Ireland’s vision sees every child thriving and learning. Achieving this means that child safeguarding is a significant priority across all aspects of our work, internally as well as externally. Tusla defines Child safeguarding as ‘ensuring safe practice and appropriate responses by workers and volunteers to concerns about the safety or welfare of children including online concerns, should these arise.  Child safeguarding is about protecting the child from harm, promoting their welfare and in doing so, creating an environment which enables children and young people to grow, develop and achieve their full potential.’

In a world where the safety and well-being of children are paramount, effective communication stands as the guardian of their protection. Today, we will delve into the role that communication plays in child safeguarding in bold and subtle ways. We explore verbal and non-verbal communication, and the significance of communicating with children. Helpful links are dotted throughout our exploration, beginning with defining two types of interactions.

The nuances of verbal and non-verbal communication

Verbal communication traditionally refers to spoken words used to exchange meaningful messages. However, not all people communicate through spoken words. For example; people in the Deaf community will use the Sign Language native to their country and other individuals may use Augmentative and Alternative Communication to replace or add to spoken words. These communications are just as meaningful and complex as the spoken word, and some may prefer the term “non-speaking”. Verbal and “non-speaking” communication show us what people have to say, non-verbal communication gives us clues about how they say it and how they may feel about what they say.

Non-verbal communication includes facial expressions, gestures, body language, eye contact, and paralingusitics (tone of voice, volume, stress on words, rate of speech). They are key to enriching our verbal communication by enhancing what we have to say. We need both types of communication for rich interactions, and they are equally valuable.

“Communication is the most fundamental of human capacities. The opportunity to communicate is recognised as a basic human right. Everybody has the potential to communicate and must be supported in doing so in order to fulfil their social, educational, emotional and vocational potential.” (Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists)

As a basic human right, communication is one of our most powerful tools to educate, care for and safeguard children. It may be one of the first insights that alert us that a child’s welfare may be compromised. Interpreting the nuances of communication is not a linear journey. The complexities of a diversity of cultures, languages and developmental differences all contribute to each child’s communication. Relationships with families become especially important to encourage all the adults in a child’s life to value and nurture their communication.

The significance of communicating with children

When working with children across all ages, the value of observation and vigilance cannot be underestimated. We need to be aware of multiple signs that indicate safeguarding concerns, likewise we need to be intentional about the communication we use to create an environment where children feel safe to express themselves. Children’s behaviours are often a communication window into their inner world, one we should keenly discern in practice. When we encourage communication development, we nurture children’s access to and mastery of that basic human right. Communication is foundational to safeguarding children and leads them to deeper participation in their own lives.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child explains that children have participation rights, which include the right to express their opinions and have a say in matters that affect them. Adults have a responsibility then, to listen well to children, especially to safeguard them.

To create positive environments where children feel safe, supported, and free to communicate, we often focus on teaching them to speak and listen. As adults, we must actively listen to children as a fundamental factor of such an environment. This aids children’s learning to communicate difficult thoughts or feelings and that their views matter. There are several skills involved in active listening that are meaningful for the significant adults in a child’s life. Children are often much more observant than many realise. Non-verbal communication matters to them as much as the words we say and is a powerful skill to show children they are safe to communicate. In a recent study commissioned by Tusla, Through the Eyes of the Child, many meaningful examples are thoroughly documented from the lived experiences of children and how we can build trust through our communication with them.

Finally, in the words of my wise 12-year-old, “children help adults become better adults” and I certainly cannot argue with that philosophy.

Child safeguarding is a significant priority in Early Childhood Ireland’s practice, research, and advocacy work. We are currently reflecting on our own practices, reviewing our policies, and exploring how best to support members to develop a safeguarding culture within their own settings and across the sector so that all children thrive. A survey designed to explore Early Years and School Age Care perspectives in child safeguarding will be launched at the end of September to pursue our ambitions in providing child safeguarding supports.

Bio: Lauraine Giacovazzi

For a substantial part of my career, I have worked as a Speech and Language Therapist in education, healthcare, and university settings. I also have a background in research via my dissertation, “Promoting language and emergent literacy in children: application of environmental print in under-served preschools” and various other projects. I am specifically interested in protecting and nurturing children’s developmental potential both holistically and within the frame of communication learning, linguistic and cultural diversity. Presently, I am a researcher at Early Childhood Ireland.

List of sources linked in the blog post (in order of appearance):

Child Safeguarding: A guide for policy, procedure and practice (2nd edition):
Communication Matters: What is AAC?
The Guild for Human Services: Ask the Expert: “Nonspeaking” vs “nonverbal” and why language matters:
The Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists: IASLT advocacy for people with communication and swallowing difficulties: 
Place2Be, Improving Children’s Mental Health: Looking behind the behaviour – how children communicate:
Children’s Rights Alliance: The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Active Listening:
Raisingchildren.net.au, The Australian Parenting Website; Nonverbal communication: body language and tone of voice:
Tusla Child and Family Agency: “Through the Eyes of the Child” – children’s experiences of Tusla services documented in new report:

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