Many times, the most important FIRST STEP we need to take when we work with very young children with language delays is to take a look at our own interaction and communication patterns.
This week I talked to a therapist who said to me, “I need to be more lively when I work with my clients!”
I loved her honest self-assessment.
This one change can make a HUGE difference in how therapy begins and continues to evolve with a toddler or preschooler.
I’ve written extensively about this in Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual. Here’s a tidbit…
Effective professionals demonstrate communicative affect.
We’ve already discussed how important it is to be fun and playful with a young child, but this is a little different. Sometimes the children we see are oblivious to another person’s presence, much less the non-verbal messages the other person may be sending their way. These children miss much of the interaction because, to put it bluntly, the other person isn’t interesting enough to attract their attention.
Because of these deficits in social awareness, we should model heightened affect during all of our interactions with each child, and especially with those who routinely tune out other people. Using exaggerated, animated expressions, along with very simplified language, will make it much more likely that a child will first attend to another person, and then begin to respond, and hopefully, eventually be able to initiate social interaction. By changing our own communicative affect, we’re beginning to address a child’s social skill deficits. Making it more likely that he will notice us is a nice first step.
When we increase our own communicative affect, we’re also consistently modeling non-verbal ways for all of our non-verbal friends to learn to communicate with others. Augmentative communication systems shouldn’t be limited to signs or picture systems. The non-verbal, social/emotional messages that are conveyed with the naturally-occurring facial expressions and gestures we all instinctively use during every day interaction are important supplements to expressive language.
Some children on our caseloads will have already mastered this compensatory strategy, but others will need help. Teaching a child to purposefully use his own facial expressions and gestures to convey communicative intent is an important additional skill to target while you’re working to develop expressive language and more intelligible speech.
So on a practical level, how does demonstrating increased affect look? In a nutshell, our faces should match our verbal messages. If you’re happy and encouraging, and I hope you are, your facial expression and body language should visibly reflect that positive emotion. If you’re acting surprised to help a child respond during play, your raised eyebrows and vocalizations should help convey your intent. If a child’s conduct is grossly out-of-line, don’t crack a smile or lovingly coddle him, or else he assumes everything is just fine. Appearing disconnected during an activity sends the message to a child that it’s okay if he checks out too. When a child is ignoring you, “ratchet it up a notch” so that he can’t help but look at you to see what you’re doing.
Many of our little friends with receptive language delays have become quite adept at reading visual cues to help them understand a speaker when words don’t make sense. Be sure you’re giving them the additional information they need with your affect.
For more advice like this, check out Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual