The very first step is to gauge your child’s current level of communication skills. This is very important because it does 2 things – it helps us understand what they already know how to do, and it allows us to understand what our next goal should look like. You may decide that your child does not communicate at all. This is a very common response I receive from parents and educators who naturally tend to define communication as “talking”. I urge you to think about communication as far more complex than just verbal communication. A baby is capable of communicating with others through their facial expressions, gestures, body language and production of sounds. We, as adults, rely heavily on written modes of communication (notes, text messages, emails) as much as other modes of communication. The following points may help you gain an insight into your child’s communication patterns:
- How do you know when your child is happy/sad/angry – what does your child say/do?
- Does your child use gestures such as pointing/hand signs/leading you by hand to a place/object of desire?
- Does your child respond to his/her name when called? If so, how does your child respond?
- Does your child request for items that are out of reach or out of sight? If so, how does your child make their request known to you?
Consistent exposure to sounds and words helps a child’s brain build the necessary pathways required for the development of verbal communication skills. Understand and accept that communication is a skill that develops gradually over a long period of time. We spend our first year listening to words and sounds before we manage to mimic it ourselves. We spend 2 years of our lives learning words before we utter a few independently. This is a slow process, but trust that consistent repetitive exposure to sounds is the best way for a child’s brain to develop sound awareness and attach meanings to words.
Always assume your child is communicating with you, even if it is not through verbal means. For young children and children who are developmentally delayed, it is normal for a child to prefer to communicate his/her feelings and thoughts in non-verbal manners – mainly through behaviours and body language. It is even normal for us adults to refrain from using words when we are feeling an intense emotion – think about adults giving each other the silent treatment or others who display their anger by slamming the table, storming off or giving each other the death stare. These are all normal expressions and ways to communicate. Therefore, always be the detective to look out for signs when your child is communicating with you. Acknowledge these attempts by responding enthusiastically to your child.
Always respond to communication attempts in a back-and-forth communication style. Think about an adult communicating with an infant. Eye contact, smile, use of short words e.g. “hello” and then, waiting. Waiting is the most important step. What are we waiting for? A response of course! Communication is 2-way and you need to expect your child to respond. We are expecting an infant to respond to us so why not a child? Infants respond usually with facial expressions and cooing. We acknowledge that as a response and we create our next message. This pattern goes back and forth several times. It is this backward-forward pattern (reciprocity) that teaches a child how to communicate with others. It does not matter what you are saying to the child or what the child is communicating back to you. The most important part is to wait for their response (verbal/non-verbal) and to reciprocate. Most often, we know our children so well that we do not wait for their response because we already know what they need/want. We need to create an opportunity for them to respond to us.
Scaffolding is a method of teaching that mimics how our brain processes information. When teaching a child a new set of skills, it is important that we know what they can do already and set up situations to encourage the child to move into their next stage. A gentle stretch of skills is what we want. If we aim for a big jump, the child may get frustrated. If we fail to stretch the child, they may be too comfortable with their current communication level and may not be motivated to attempt new skills. So how can we scaffold communication skills?
Going back to our first point, it is important for you to gauge what your child can and cannot yet do. For example, if your child does not yet respond to their name, play games to encourage awareness of self. Singing songs to introduce yourselves, saying his/her name and waving hello to your child in front of a mirror can be a good way to encourage self-exploration. If a child is already communicating by leading you by arm to a place/item that they need, encourage them to point by pretending not to understand what they are asking for. Point at and label items to encourage them to learn to point and request for items. Pointing is a good way for children to understand the need to communicate – the fact that it will result in an outcome, it serves a purpose. If they are always understood without having to make an effort to communicate, it is unlikely that they will attempt to learn any other ways of communicating. Pretending not to understand a child and prompting them through picture cards (visuals), pointing at the object or repeating words are good ways to encourage them to make an effort to be understood. If your child has access to items they like/need, there is little opportunity for them to be motivated to communicate with you. One way to tackle this is to place a couple of items out of reach so this creates an opportunity for them to make a request. Requests can be made by saying the full word of the item (if they can repeat after you), by saying a partial word (e.g. ‘Bot’ for Bottle), by pointing at the item (when they are pointing, model the word for them “Bottle? You want the bottle?), by gestures or by showing you a picture of a bottle. All forms of communication should be encouraged. Parents have to be consistent and always model the word for them. The more they hear it, the better their chances of learning it.
Most importantly, be consistent and patient. The best way a child learns is when the child feels safe. The best way to create safety is through relationship-building. In my next post, I will cover relationship-building activities you can do with your child for just 15 minutes each day.
© 2020, Amarit Kaur