Helping young children build speech- language skills is an exciting job that both caregivers and educators try to do every second of the day. We spend so much time giving our children directions to follow, asking them a ton of questions, and modeling words and phrases to shape them into eloquent communicators. What I find we do NOT do enough sometimes is hold back on our never ending “models” of what or how to say things, comments, questions, and directions and, instead, allowing our children initiate and engage us. Greenspan refers to these initiations as opening circles of communication (Weirder & Greenspan “Engaging Autism”, 2006).
Speech- language development can be thought of as having three interacting and equally important domains- Form ,Content, and Use (Lahey, 1988). Form refers to word structure or morphological units of the word (eat vs. eat+ ing). Content is what the word is essentially communicating- the meaning of it. Use (also known as pragmatics) refers to the function of the word- the very purpose for which the word is communicated. The communicative functions that slowly emerge and characterize communication over the course of speech- language acquisition in typically developing young children vary. Children communicate to greet others, comment on objects/actions, request desired objects, request assistance, protest, deny (a statement), ask questions, regulate others (e.g. “blow!”, “open!”), entertain, and narrate events.
In order for children to be able to express these functions, aside from the intent to communicate, there must also be opportunities to express ideas, wants, needs. For example, why would Timmy request for an object (nonverbally or verbally) if the caregiver hands everything to the child at the slightest sign of a tantrum. Why ask a “where?” question if every toy or beloved object is comfortably in sight? Why ask for help if the caregiver readily assists the child across all activities. The educators describe it as assuming the child’s needs. Of course we do it out of love and care, and, let’s be honest, sometimes, to save time. However, it is important with both typical and delayed children to be mindful of what (form, content, use) we model, when (timing is crucial in teaching) we model it, how (facial expression, tone of voice, etc) we model it, and why (is it developmentally important to teach it now?) we model it at this very moment.
Just as it is important in speech- language and cognitive development to be able to comprehend concepts, follow directions, and understand the different wh- questions (receptive tasks we as teachers are so great at! We just tell the child what to do!), it is also paramount that your child is able to initiate communication. After all, communication is the ability to express ideas, thoughts, and wants, not just understand those expressed by others. Answering questions and following commands is not initiating. Language that is elicited by us- is not spontaneous. To use language spontaneously, effortlessly and creatively, children need opportunities to practice the skill, to experience being the directors. In order for our children to get there, we must first offer models of how to initiate communication and do so appropriately. We can then create opportunities for the children to speak up.
The most basic strategies you can use today to encourage spontaneous initiations (whether nonverbal or verbal) may seem counterintuitive at first. Introducing attractive new toys or displaying a yummy snack and then putting it away may very much encourage your child to run after you with gestures or words. Even then, you may still choose to play “dumb” and be “unsure” as to what it is your child wants. Does he/she want that bag with new toy or snack “opened?” and “out?” If the child is nonverbal, use of gestures to regulate your actions to get the desired item out and open may be the initial step toward sound imitation. If you or the therapist is working on requesting help (not just objects), there is your opportunity to model “help” if the child can’t open the item independently. On a side note, I often hear educators model “help me please!” when the child is clearly at a single word level. This is not a developmental way of teaching. Yes, it is nice to hear a full sentence but your child may not be ready for it.
While playing with your child and actively commenting on your and his/her play, you may find it productive to suddenly quiet down and cease all attempts to ask questions. This often works beautifully in my therapy sessions; usually, after I have engaged the child into some sort of cooperative and enjoyable play! But, oh boy, does this take a conscious decision and self- control for the adult? You bet. We are so used to engaging in this adult- directed (telling the child what to do as opposed to letting him/her lead and you follow) approach to teaching. However, once you are able to contain your speaking and doing (I promise it is possible), you may be surprised to hear some immediate or delayed imitations of words/ phrases as well as spontaneous meaningful language. The language produced, to me, is an indication that the child wants more of the experience- more language enriched play. Use this opportunity to expand on what he/she is already saying. Timing here is really important as you want to imitate back everything your child is doing. This is another way to communicate with your child. Build on your child’s language and further describe the objects/ people in play without using long sentences. So, allowing nothing to happen for a few minutes at a time may just be the push to help your child come out with some circles of communication.
In addition, enjoying a novel activity or exploring a new toy and, at the very height of your child’s excitement stopping excess to it, too, works well with many children. You don’t have to do it in a confrontational, “if you don’t imitate my word/ phrase I just won’t give it back to you” type of way. Always create these “obstructions”, as Greenspan refers to them, in a friendly, playful and positive manner. Obstructions or fabricated “problems” are also a big part of Social- Cognitive and Constructivist Theories of language learning. The idea behind these “obstructions” is that the child is forced to problem- solve and use the resources (language being one of them!) he/she has to get what he/she wants. Allowing your child to problem- solve is critical to overall cognitive development that affects and shapes speech and language. Presenting your child with developmentally appropriate activities that involve thinking and figuring out of how to get X is an invaluable strategy that I always use with all of my children. In sum, stop excess to items that are already loved, close and tape up containers, boxes, jars with favorite snack and toys, give your child all but ONE important item that is needed to complete an activity (glue, scissors), give your child the “wrong” item, or offer the “wrong” solution to the problem. All of these “problems” will push the kid to think and figure out what to do next. This, in turn, facilitates spontaneous language use.
Letting go of control and just allowing for things to spill, break, or simply not follow the predictable comfortable routine, too, elicits a ton of speech- language and fun communication. These are the most teachable moments as our children experience all the new words and concepts first hand. Perhaps, this is why many children learn “dirty” or “wet” attributes before they learn their colors. These concepts easier learned because they experiential and bring about relevant words to describe these personally relevant and emotional experiences. Weider and Greenspan share interesting ideas about how emotion must drive language and communication (Weider & Greenspan “Engaging Autism”, 2006). Cleaning up and taking turns arranging things back in place is super educational too as our children need to learn responsibility and helping others.
Moreover, exposing children to objects that are completely novel and foreign (but safe!) may help elicit an attempt to ask a question “what this?” because the child wants to know. The motivation is there. Now he/she needs language to get the answer from you. Some children may use a word with a rising intonation, which too is a question from, just not grammatically mature. For example, “Hat?” is as much of a question as “Is that a hat?!”. If all your child is capable of verbalizing is “wow”, then you can go ahead and model “what IS that?” question a few times. Of course, you want to pair it up with an exaggerated expression of surprise and excitement in your voice.
To sum this up, do not be afraid to experiment, get “messy”, stay silent for a few minutes, entice, intrigue and just wait for what your child will do. Yes, we want to teach our children to attend, sit down for a structured activity, and identify objects, shapes, colors, and actions; but these adult- directed activities do not allow for self- expression or spontaneous language use. You also want to follow your child’s natural interests and inclinations as this is frequently a way into their world. If you show interest in your friend’s ideas and you let him/her speak, will they not want to bond with you even more? Will they not want to communicate with you?
On a different note, there are children that may have difficulty verbally initiating communication due to Apraxia of Speech, difficulties with understanding that language is symbolic and can be used to communicate (often associated with Autism), or other cognitive constraints that delay the process of using words. These are the children that especially need all the “tricks” described above: element of surprise, novelty, withholding of objects, stopping preferred activity, using “sensory” items/ play, and your ability to find their interests to become creative playmates and not just “teachers” that ask questions and give directions. All too often, we become caught up in power struggles and behavior management because the child refuses to participate in an activity or throws a tantrum (because he/she is disinterested, unmotivated by or otherwise disconnected from what we are using/ doing). Creative and talented teachers are those that can use unconventional materials presented in unexpected ways while targeting all the skills that must be learned! Learning to manipulate the environment to get the most out of your child’s skills can be difficult but indescribably rewarding.
1. Greenspan, S. & Weider, S. (2006). Engaging Autism: Using the Floortime approach to help children related, communicate, and think.
2. Lahey, M. (1988). Language disorders and Language Development.
3. Wetherby, A. & Prizant, B. (1990). Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales. Chicago IL: Applied Symblix.
Posted by natalieslp | Filed under speech- language and communication in preschoolers, Uncategorized