How Do Language and Tone Affect Children's Behavior?

By Stacey Lynn
As early as infancy, parents see behavioral reactions to tone of voice and language.
As early as infancy, parents see behavioral reactions to tone of voice and language.

In a study in the May 2013 publication of Psychological Science, researchers, using fMRI technology, found that infants react to different tones of voice even while sleeping. Together, tone and language are the cornerstone of a child's development, going beyond language acquisition skills and affecting all aspects of behavior, from communication techniques to sense of self, and proving that there is power in words.

Language Development

In the 2008 article, "Literacy Development in Early Childhood: Reflective Teaching for Birth to Age Eight," B.W. Otto made the point that "language does not develop in isolation." Language development is social, and it's not just how often a child is exposed to sounds, words and speech that makes a difference, it is how much he is engaged in the communication. According to Nemours, a leading nonprofit children's health organization, child-directed speech, or baby talk, uses a higher pitch of voice, mimicking the female voice, which is found to elicit the most responses in babies due to the association of feeding and comfort for them. Slower speech rate, exaggerated intonations and expressions of child-directed speech also serve to engage attention, thus providing the platform from which language development will spring.

Personal Growth

Positive behaviors and attitudes are formed with conscientious use of language and tone. In an adapted excerpt, from the text, "The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn," Paula Denton, Ed.D., describes using language and the responsive classroom technique as a way of developing self-confidence, self-discipline and self-control by emphasizing social and emotional growth, along with academics. Using language and tone to convey faith in a child, keeping speech length appropriate and utilizing action words are all tools in a teacher's repetoire that help promote positive behaviors in the classroom. Research and evidence showed that the responsive classroom approach to teaching produced higher student achievement and improved the overall school atmosphere.

Interpersonal Behavior Skills/Communication Skills

Even when children are not directly involved in conversation, they are still taking in all of the sounds and nuances of interactions around them and learning from the examples they see. According to Carol Seefeldt, Ph.D., writing on the Scholastic website, effective communication behavior, such as taking turns in conversation, is learned through tone and language -- children learn that the rising tone at the end of a question is a signal to respond. "Verbal Judo," originally a training program for police officers, has been adapted for parents and children to teach conflict resolution through words and tone. "Word blocks" are used to deflect and redirect verbal assaults to prevent conflict escalation and is a particularly effective tool for children to combat bullying.

Negative Effects

Just as tone and language have positive effects on children's behaviors, they can also have negative effects.The Women's and Children's Health Network website explains that children can feel the anger from an angry tone and as a result can become fearful. Watching the behavioral response of a child while receiving discipline will indicate whether the language and tone being used are making a child feel insecure or fearful. Critical words can be damaging, and using a tone that means one thing and language that is saying another is not only confusing for a child but in some instances can affect a child's self-esteem and feeling of safety. It is important for parents to be aware of the language they use and reflect on the tones in their voice to encourage positive behavioral development in their children.

About the Author

Stacey Lynn graduated from the University of London with a BSc in psychology. She holds two certificates in counseling and has worked in a variety of fields including mental health, academic advising and rowing Coaching, to name just a few.