In the aftermath of the pandemic, many parents have been grappling with a question: How can we help children catch up on the social skills that ebbed away during the school closings and quarantines, or were possibly never learned in the first place?

Many of the essential social skills children learn are nonverbal, according to childhood psychologist Stephen Nowicki, author of the new book “Raising a Socially Successful Child: Teaching Kids the Nonverbal Language They Need to Communicate, Connect, and Thrive.” In a recent CNBC article, Nowicki unpacked how children can learn the important skill of picking up on social cues through the various qualities of the voice — and how their parents can help.

Using our voices to communicate emotion can be a powerful tool for connecting with others. And teaching kids how to discern and navigate the various dimensions of their voice — like pitch, tone and volume — can improve their social skills and lead to higher academic performance, according to Nowicki’s CNBC article. Nowicki, who is a former professor of psychology at Emory University with an active clinical practice, is the author of several books about what helps children thrive socially.

But it’s not just COVID-19 that has contributed to fewer in-person social interactions for children. Screens and living away from extended families have reduced the opportunities for learning social and nonverbal communication skills, Nowicki wrote in the introduction to his most recent book. And learning those nonverbal skills is key to helping kids adjust to their social settings.

Screens, in particular, have limited face-to-face interactions for children. “Screens have come to dominate all our days — children and adults alike — leaving our children with a lot less time to learn about the intricate nonverbal back-and forth of relationships,” Nowicki wrote in the book. “The less interaction, the less opportunity for learning. And the less skilled children are nonverbally, the more difficult it will be for them to succeed socially in childhood and beyond.” Ultimately, the new book is a guide for parents to help their children regain the social skills that may have been stunted during the pandemic, he wrote.

Learning nonverbal behavior, like how to use your voice, is just as important as learning reading and writing, Nowicki believes. And understanding how voice communicates emotion is a key part of this process.

Children lost the equivalent of a third of a year's learning to pandemic

The term that describes various qualities of a human voice is called vocalics, according to the CNBC piece. To determine how well children can use vocalics, Nowicki and a colleague created the vocalics test, which is commonly used to assess how accurately children read vocal cues. “Children who learn to successfully use vocalics have a significant advantage when it comes to communication and connection,” Nowicki wrote.

In 1992, Nowicki conducted a study that measured the ability to identify emotion in facial expressions and tones of voice in neurodivergent children. The findings were published in a book called “Helping the Child Who Doesn’t Fit In.”

Nowicki offers a few tips to parents for helping their children read the subtleties of the human voice and respond to them appropriately in social situations. Here are some of the suggestions highlighted by Nowicki on CNBC:

  1. Avoid using “happy voice” to your child while your facial expressions or words may be communicating sadness or anger. The child may perceive this as a mixed message.
  2. Model speech without filler words such as “like” and “y’know” so you don’t pass on this pattern of speech to your child, the psychologist said.
  3. The best way to gain awareness of how we sound to others is to listen to recordings of our voice, according to Nowicki. He also recommends recording your child’s voice — and testing different pitches and tones — and then playing the recordings back to the child.
  4. Ask the child to identify what emotion they think your voice is communicating.
  5. Read a sentence to your child with accents on various words in the sentence. This can help the child understand how the emphasis on different words can shift the meaning of the sentence.
  6. Reserve sarcasm for conversations with adults. Young children may be confused by sarcastic phrases, the psychologist said, so it’s best if adults steer away from sarcasm “with and in front of younger children.” But Nowicki recommends explaining the role sarcasm plays in our speech, by demonstrating phrases with or without sarcasm.