Communicative Intent in Toddlers with Language Delays
Communicative intent is such a huge predictor in how well a toddler communicates, even before he learns to say words.
As therapists well know, it’s can be sooooo h..a..r..d to teach communicative intent to a toddler who is disconnected or isolated and doesn’t seem to know he’s supposed to want to share messages with other people.
There are actually 3 components for teaching a child to use communicative intent. Over the next couple of days, we’ll discuss these. The text is from Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual:
Demonstrate Communicative Intent with Affect, Gestures, and Vocalizations
Once a child is attending and moving along cognitively, we want him to demonstrate
intentionality, even before he’s ready to use true words. Ways that babies and toddlers
first begin to demonstrate their own communicative intentions are through affect,
gestures, and vocalizations.
As a reminder, affect is visual demonstration of your feelings. According to Dr. Stanley
Greenspan in his book Engaging Autism, affect drives communication. In 2005 a group
of neuroscientists found that words spoken within an emotional context stimulate more
neural activity in infants. So what does this mean for pediatric SLPs and early
interventionists? We have to model emotion, or affect, for our friends so that they are
more likely to attend to and then learn words. How’s that for pressure?
If you’re consistently remembering to be playful, you’re probably already
demonstrating heightened affect with your clients during sessions. For those of you
who are naturally less up-beat, you may have to fake it, or at least remind yourself to
purposefully exaggerate any hint of emotion that you feel during play. As noted in the
previous section, young children with social skill delays may not notice you at all unless
you’re highly animated during play.
We’ve already talked about how important it is to use affect to engage a child, but
using heightened affect to demonstrate communicative intent is a little different. When
we correctly display heightened affect, we’re also modeling non-verbal ways for our
non-verbal friends to communicate with others.
Facial expressions are important ways we can help our clients learn to convey
information before they begin to speak. Many times the toddlers we see appear to be
“flat.” There’s not much deviation in their little faces, and consequently they show little
affect throughout play and daily routines. These children also lack social referencing
meaning they don’t notice your changes in facial expressions. Teach them to notice
faces by making your own face visually appealing during play. Exaggerate emotion with
your own eyes and mouth during play. You want a child to think, I better keep looking
at this crazy lady to see what she’s going to do next!
Using heightened affect is very natural as you’re modeling Exclamatory Words during
play. I’ve used the term Exclamatory Words a couple of times already, but let’s define
those kinds of words and how important those words can be in your treatment of
toddlers with language delays and disorders. Exclamatory Words are those you seem to
“yell” to exclaim your message. These kinds of words are probably prevalent in your
everyday narratives whether it’s intentional or not! I don’t know of any adult who’s
great with kids, who doesn’t instinctively say, “Uh oh,” “Whee,” and make funny noises
Exclamatory Words not only help children attend and connect with you, but they also
help children heighten their own affect in play and begin to convey meaning. During
these times of elevated arousal in play, a child may even “pop out” words they might
ordinarily not be able to say. Pamela Marshalla included the phrase “Pop Out Word” in
her book Becoming Verbal with Childhood Apraxia to describe when a child says a
word that seemed to come out of nowhere. Exclamatory Words are often the first kinds
of words a non-verbal toddler “pops out” and may be the first kinds of ways they begin
to verbally demonstrate communicative purpose.
It’s true that non-verbal children talk more, perhaps popping out a new or unexpected word,
when they are “mad, scared, or excited.”
We shouldn’t really set out to make kids mad or scared in therapy, so we better go for excited!
When kids are excited, they’re naturally attending to you and demonstrating increased affect
with smiles, laughter, and other positive facial expressions and body language.
Using heightened affect yourself can also significantly improve a child’s ability to
understand what you mean when language comprehension is a problem. Children with
significant receptive language delays may depend more on your facial expressions and
tone of voice to determine what you’re saying rather than your words.
I’ve reiterated the importance of modeling affect and given you multiple examples of
how to do this in your sessions for a very specific purpose. Children with social skill
disorders can’t begin to imitate affect in order to demonstrate communicative intent
unless he sees you model variations in affect first. In this area, like all other areas of
language development, imitation typically precedes spontaneous use of a new skill.
Because of the inherent differences in children with social/pragmatic concerns, using
affect to demonstrate communicative intent will not emerge without some focused
attention to this goal.
I’ll be sharing Part 2 later! We also discussed this in one of our 2 new podcasts last week… #451 Expressive Language Milestones by 12 months… check out that show for more discussion of communicative intent. If a child doesn’t seem to connect with you very often to purposefully communicate, this is what’s missing! Watch the show below for ideas of how to get started working with them.
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