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Communicating with children

Frequently asked questions

© UNICEF/MENA06165/Noorani

How to avoid to commom mistakes in developing communication for children

1. How to ensure my communication is child-appropriate?

2. What is a strategy to help prevent or change a negative behaviour?

3. Is the use of fear justified or effective?

4. How to ensure communication is entertaining as well as educational?

5. How can I make more creative and child-friendly “lessons to be learned”?

6. What are some stereotypes to challenge and avoid?

7. How can I make sure children understand my communication?

8. Is copying a successful commercial formula always the best approach?

9. Is pre-testing necessary?

10. Is special training needed to develop quality communication for children?

1. How do I ensure that my communication is child-appropriate?

It is often difficult for adults to refrain from imposing what they think is critically important information and from presenting messages in media formats that are interesting to children. They think that this will make them appropriate for children. Numerous examples exist of child-appropriate communication that addresses: the prevention of child abuse and exploitation, sanitation and hygiene, poverty, violence, death and illness and other difficult issues. Those responsible for producing such important messages need to be aware of what children can understand at given ages, and also be clear regarding the responsibility of adults versus messages that meet the needs of children and adolescents.

We can best support and protect children’s rights by ensuring that communication is age-appropriate while encouraging new skills to support their development and learning, by consulting child development experts and by keenly observing real children to determine the appropriateness of a message. A good rule of thumb is to portray the daily lives of children, their interests, wants and experiences, as bases for appropriate content, and to pre-test communication ideas with children prior to final production.

For example, it is important to teach everyone about the importance of vitamins, but adults are responsible for ensuring that children are healthy. So instead of a message to children about the importance of vitamin A, a child-appropriate message would be about how one can become strong, clever and have more energy when “I try to eat all the colours of a rainbow”. Instead of a message about the rights of a child, a child-appropriate message on social justice could show children learning to share and be fair at home and in school. Instead of a didactic lesson about girls and boys being equal, a child-appropriate message on gender equality could model a gender-progressive boy as gentle and fair as well as a girl who is a physically active leader.

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2. What is the best strategy to use when trying to help prevent or change a negative behaviour?

We all learn through imitation. Positive modelling can help us learn good values and behaviours and unfortunately, negative modelling can teach and reinforce values and behaviours that we are trying to change or avoid. It is important to make sure that our communication shows and tells children what we want them to do, rather than what we do not want them to do. Portraying the negative, visually and verbally, can lead to sometimes dangerous and unintended negative results. It is safer and more appropriate to show positive actions and solutions. Communication, especially for young children, should also be checked and re-checked to ensure the inclusion of good safety practices, and to avoid name-calling or any kind of violence, even in jest.

In examining typical examples of development communication, the materials and media often included a greater percentage of stories that dealt with problems (or what was to be avoided). A smaller number dealt with solutions. In addition, the materials often devoted a greater percentage of their stories to the “problem”. Likewise, problems were often presented in dramatically exciting ways both visually and verbally, so they became stronger and more easily remembered. We suggest reversing this trend to ensure that a greater number of stories focus on visually and verbally interesting solutions while also promoting positive action.

For example, instead of showing a child playing with a landmine and having a horrific accident, a child can be shown seeing a device and immediately giving a warning, modelling the steps to stay away from it and informing an adult. Instead of showing a girl being harassed, exploited or abused, model a confident and proactive girl dealing successfully with the first signs of harassment.

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3. Is the use of fear justified or effective in communicating with children?

Fear is a common human emotion in both children and adults. It is important to name, present and support healthy ways of dealing with the small and large fears that are part of life, but care should always be taken when using fear arousal in any communication for children. When evil characters and monsters, over-sized medical equipment and germs and frightening abuses are presented visually and with dramatic music or special effects, there is a risk that fear will overwhelm children’s ability to see and hear the message. Even older children can be affected by realistically portrayed abuse, violence or injury: this can immobilize or traumatize them.

It is important to ensure that communication focuses on healthy ways children and adolescents can cope with a range of fears and emotions. When presenting conflict or emotions such as anger, present the problem verbally and in as short a time as necessary. Push the boundaries and expand the use of creative and positive models that do not frighten, but that offer solutions.

For example, in accident prevention communication, instead of showing a child sticking a finger into an electric socket and getting electrocuted, show a child seeing the socket and remembering and modelling a catchy phrase that tells the child to stay away. Instead of presenting a big mosquito, a large needle or the HIV virus as a monster, show children and adolescents verbally acknowledging their fears and saying and doing appropriate things to allay fears and stay healthy. Instead of communication portraying the “horrible fate” of a child with polio or other immunizable disease, show children and adults speaking in matter-of-fact ways about not wanting their siblings, children or grandchildren to get the same disease and resolving to have them immunized.

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4. How can I ensure that my communication is entertaining as well as educational?

Everyone learns best when content is presented in interesting ways and through good stories. No one, especially a child, learns best from a didactic or preachy presentation of information. The principles of child-friendly education apply equally to child-friendly communication. These include, among other things, active learning where children’s needs and opinions are included. In designing communication for children, it is a “gold standard” that “a good story is a good story”, and that this is the best way to engage learners. Make the communication fun and inspiring: children will be more likely to return to such stories and repeat the lesson. Create stories about children’s lives and interests and about people important to them; appeal to their imagination and curiosity; make characters multidimensional; and encourage critical thinking, play, learning and action during and after communication.

For example, instead of communication that teaches children early literacy or numeracy skills by rote, develop games, songs, poems and tongue-twisters to help prepare them for entry to school. Instead of a pamphlet that lists facts about exploitation or abuse, develop a story about a young girl with tremendous resilience or a boy who did not follow his peers when they bully another child.

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5. How can I be more creative and child friendly in my presenting “lessons to be learned”?

Children are often better motivated when they learn from their own experiences and the experiences of children like them. Communication where adults are the experts, talk down and preach to children and emphasize what they did wrong will not be as successful as communication that inspires children to learn from problem-solving, exploration and imagination. It is very important to present adults as nurturing, supportive, trusted and affirming, regardless of the age of the children. Adults should be seen in a range of relationships with children, exchanging ideas and experiences and even learning from them. Children and young people should sometimes also be shown as having the answers, much to the astonishment and pride of the adults.

For example, instead of a child being scolded for not crossing a street safely, show an adult who asks a child to teach them the correct and safe way to cross a street. Instead of a child behaving like a bully and an adult coming to “teach them a lesson”, show a group of children not giving up but working together using simple conflict resolution skills to stand up for themselves while not demeaning anyone else.

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6. What are some stereotypes I need to challenge and avoid in my communication?

It is important to look at each and every character in a story to avoid stereotyped roles. Review every word and action to make sure that: naughty or bad people are not always shown as ugly or unattractive; old people are not always shown as helpless or inactive; poor children are not always sad; educated people do not always have the answers; people with disabilities are not always isolated; or that people from a particular ethnic or cultural group are not always inferior in mannerisms, tastes or interests.

In communication for children, find ways to present males, boys and men in nurturing roles such as teachers of young children and as expressing emotions. Present females, girls and women as leaders, playing non-traditional sports, driving motor vehicles or running businesses. Portray both men and women helping in the house and taking part in child care. Show children and adults with a wide variety of disabilities as able to speak up on their own behalf and as providers rather than solely as recipients of charity or support. Include people from local ethnic or minority groups in a manner equal to the dominant group.

Present varied and multidimensional characters as often as possible. For example, instead of always presenting older people with crackling voices and limited movement, show a grandmother playing soccer with her granddaughter and a grandfather cuddling, singing and dancing with his grandchild. Instead of presenting the most disadvantaged people being helped by more well-off children or adults, portray survival skills that the most disadvantaged can teach to everyone else. Or model a less well-off child helping or standing up for a better-off child.

Finally, keep in mind that it is important to provide varied and multiple representations of children and adults from a given group in order to avoid stereotypes. This within group diversity is as important as between group diversity.

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7. How can I make sure that children understand my communication?

Less is often more, simple could be best and often low-literacy productions, especially print, ensure that communication reaches all, especially the most disadvantaged. Even though our work is aimed at children and youth with a wide range of literacy skills, print communication often has visual and verbal clutter, making it hard to understand. We can show what we want children to model without words: this improves the chances of reaching children with low-literacy levels, no literacy and those from different linguistic groups. Simplicity, clarity and the use of everyday words is more likely to be understood by all.

For example, instead of using a beautiful photo with slogans and many facts about the impact of HIV/AIDS, depict a survivor taking medication, and eating nourishing food with the support of family and friends. Instead of communication with lots of words about emergency preparedness, show efforts that everyone, from small children to older adults, can make in their own homes and communities.

Encouraging stories and ideas that come from children themselves, presenting real-life positive situations, and the actual participation of children in productions are all examples of helping to ensure both authenticity and comprehension.

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8. Is copying a successful commercial formula always the best approach?

There are many successes in various types of low- and high-cost communication for children. Children’s television and radio in particular have a range of excellent programmes from many parts of the world. They have much to teach everyone, especially with regard to professional rigour. But children need a variety of media genres and content, just as they need a balanced diet to develop fully. We also need to be aware that “success” as measured by popularity and viewer ratings does not necessarily mean good-quality communication for children. Each country and region has indigenous talent and a history on which to build local communication. While there is a growing need to compete with international productions, many countries have found a niche in developing something unique to themselves, using their own stories, culture and traditions. Experience has shown that these can be of high quality while costing very little.

For example, instead of developing fast-paced cartoons with sophisticated visual effects, seek out a personable and gentle host who tells traditional and modern stories to children to help them overcome everyday fears and difficult emotions. Instead of copying “Western” pop music, modernize traditional tunes and portray different family members singing them with new words about healthy behaviours.

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9. Is pre-testing necessary?

Yes. The best communication for children is often guided by what we can learn from children. Therefore, the most important thing we can do is to spend time with them, observe them and ask them for feedback on our communication. There are many types of research that can support, inform and improve work in this area. In addition to baseline information prior to production, formative research is invaluable. In the context of communication for children, formative research can take place while one tries out “drafts” of communication. Use it to find out if children like particular characters, if they understand the intended message, if they are paying attention, and so forth. Formative research helps us to know the audience and ensure that what is being produced meets the needs and interests of children and is effective in teaching a given message. It also helps to prevent “production mistakes” and the inadvertently teaching of wrong or negative messages.

Sometimes, individual pieces of communication are developed for an emergency (a poster or a television spot on H1N1 prevention or a booklet on being prepared for a hurricane or earthquake). But more often, we should make a commitment to produce a television or radio series or to develop a multimedia campaign in support of an overall programme strategy, and ensure that both research and pre-testing are conducted.

For example, instead of you and a small group of adults deciding the content of communication on a given topic, it is better to spend time with children prior to production. Ask them simple questions about their interests, find out what they know and would like to learn on that particular topic. Instead of producing finalized materials, develop prototype scripts and drafts of materials and ask children simple questions about the format, style, interest and comprehension.

If at all possible, include two or more trusted advisers to review material prior to final production. Someone knowledgeable in child development or with extensive experience in producing communication for children can review materials as they are being developed. This methodology has proven to be both cost-effective and a learning process for producers.

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10. Do I have to have special training to develop quality communication for children?

Communication for children requires special skills, talent and training. Although capacity-building in producing for children has not been a priority in many countries, it has proven to be a wise investment. For example, up to now, UNICEF C4D (Communication for Development) staff often have greater expertise and experience in developing communication about rather than with and for children. A person working in social marketing who does not know children, or someone who produces television, radio or live dramas for adults cannot often make the transition to producing effective and high-quality communication that is appropriate for children, without first being oriented on how to develop and produce media for children.

In many countries, an approach has been used to hold capacity-building workshops that include local communication and programme staff, participants working in a variety of media and from all sectors, and people who have experience working directly with children (teachers and those working in NGOs). The workshops tap into the strengths of all groups while building their awareness and competence on how to produce effective communication for children of all ages. These workshops work best when participants gain direct experience in developing prototype productions and exploring good practices from around the world.

A successful method includes involving communication for development staff in the planning phase of new initiatives or projects. This ensures that communication is integral to and supportive of every aspect of programming. It also ensures that important research on knowledge, attitudes and practices about the critical behaviours, as well as communication access and use, are included.

Capacity-building on communication for development, as well as exploring ways to “think outside the box”, enriches projects and ensures more strategic and innovative outcomes. Nurturing a cadre of dedicated, creative producers with skill, talent and a solid foundation in developing communication specifically for children is an asset. It not only strengthens the specific project, but adds innovation and value to communication in support of a wide variety of programmes. For example, instead of contracting out communication (a single piece or a campaign) to a company primarily responsible for social marketing or communication for adults, support a capacity-building workshop for local people working in the media and from all sectors. Train participants about age-appropriate communication and work together to produce new culturally appropriate communication.

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 A Few Final Tips

Recommendation 1: If you have limited resources, begin with producing high-quality developmentally and culturally appropriate books for young children based on the suggested Principles and Guidelines. These books can eventually be adapted to electronic, digital or interpersonal media.

Recommendation 2: Screen ALL media neutrally and through the same lens. Not all books are good and not all television is bad. Each material should support the holistic development of children, complement interpersonal relationships and uphold the highest standards based on the rights of ALL children.

Recommendation 3: It is important to build local capacity to produce communication for children. An inter-sectoral approach with health, education, children protection and child development experts and creative artists working and creating together often yields the most effective results.

Recommendation 4: Children are the central guides in producing quality communication. Observe them, pre-test prototypes with them and include them in the production process – this helps ensure both authenticity and comprehension.

Recommendation 5: More research on the impact of various media on the lives of children is needed. Research topics should include examining the impact of different media and materials on a wide range of behaviours and attitudes, not just on academic learning objectives.



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