Friday, December 2, 2011

Simple Ways to Encourage Communication!

By Pam Bergman

What do you do when you have a child or children in your classroom who really seem to struggle with basic communication?  As a preschool special education teacher, I have worked with many children who have struggled a great deal with communication. 

While there are many strategies a **speech-language pathologist will use with children in order to assist communication and increase language; I'm talking about those super simple..."seems too simple to be effective...but it works!" kinds of strategies!  

As classroom teachers (and parents as well) there are so many simple things we can do throughout the day, within the classroom or home, to encourage more communication from children.  Here are three communication "strategies" that I think we all need to keep in mind when working with children who are struggling to communicate:

1.   Provide plenty of opportunities for novel activities and experiences along with many familiar activities.  Make sure to identify the most preferred activities and experiences for each child and use those to promote communication.  (If an activity is not highly motivating, there is little chance the child will want to communicate about it or communicate in order to get access to it.)  

The little hamster (named Bob) we recently got for the classroom provides multiple opportunities for communication!   The children ask to see him.  They formulate several word sentences to describe what he is doing:  ex. "Bob sleeping", "Bob eating."  We are able to introduce positional words:  ex. "Look, Bob is going UNDER the block".  "Bob is ON TOP of the block".  We can use "play time" with the hamster for work on both receptive and expressive language. 

The children know now that there are several things they can ask to do.  They can ask to "feed" the hamster.  They can ask to "pet" or "touch" the hamster.  Some children may be using signs or word approximations to ask for these things.  Some children may be using gestures (pointing to the hamster food).  We take all of this as communication.  Of course, we verbalize what the child means.  So, if a child points to the hamster food, we would follow up with "Oh, should we FEED the hamster?" 

2.  Don't anticipate a child's needs! 
A child needs a reason to communicate!  Sometimes well meaning adults and children can become so good at anticipating a child's needs, that the child has very little reason to attempt to communicate! 

  Whether a highly motivating activity includes listening to books on CD, playing with play dough, playing a computer game, eating cheerios or swinging on a swing, make sure the child communicates in order to get that activity! Again, this may mean imitating a sign, doing a sign with hand over hand assistance, saying a single word, using multiple words, using eye gaze and looking from a communication partner to the desired object and back or using a communication book, pictures or voice output device. 

3.  Restrict access to some things...some of the time!
This is one of those tough ones that often seems to go against good early childhood practices.  This really is for those children who are not yet communicating with others in many settings at all.  I know that I struggle with algebra.  I will avoid it at all cost!  This is the same for many of our children who are struggling to communicate!  Often these children become very self-reliant; which is not necessarily a bad thing!  But, when it is used to avoid communication altogether, it can be a problem.  

 For example, we often do the flannel board story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff.  The children love this and love to 'retell' it by placing the pieces out on the floor during center time.  Although MOST favorite items are placed within reach of the children, I occasionally place these in the case the children easily recognize along with the book, just out of reach. 

For children who may need more communication support, I would provide a Boardmaker picture of "book" within the child's reach.  This requires a child to either grab the Boardmaker picture and bring this to an adult to get the book and flannel board pieces down or run to an adult and communicate in SOME way the fact that they would like the book and flannelboard pieces.  Again, this may be with support (a sign done with hand over hand assistance) or independently.

Remember, when given a REASON to communicate and activities that are HIGHLY MOTIVATING a child will begin to WANT to communicate with others!  For some children this is more difficult than others.  But, for all children, it is our responsibility to provide an environment that promotes and encourages communication and to provide supports when a child is struggling to communicate.

**NOTE:  Of course, if a child is struggling to communicate, a speech-language pathologist should always be involved with the child.  He or she will work with you to provide individualized supports for the child.  These are simply three suggestions to keep in mind when setting up the environment for a child who is struggling to communicate.  


  1. I love these posts, Pam! I find that I employ many of the strategies I used in special education with my pre-k children and they are quite effective with them, as well. Even for a "neuro-typical" child, these are great suggestions to build language and communication skills!

  2. Great ideas, Pam! I especially love the idea of using activities that are highly motivating. When I had a Montessori school, we always had gerbils, and my own children loved having a hamster. As Ayn said, these are great ideas even for a "neuro-typical" child. Deb @

  3. Pam!!!! These are such helpful specifics, for ALL of us! I spent 10 years on the staff at a private center for young children with special needs. Our speech therapists were ALWAYS telling us these sort of suggestions and they have helped me my entire career.

    I will always remember them (the speech divas) reminding us OVER and OVER and OVER -- that the greatest gift we could give children struggling to communicate, was to give them T-I-M-E!!!

    They even went so far as to suggest that if we needed to slow ourselves down, to allow for the child's response, we could count.

    I think you've really done a HUGE service by posting these ideas.



  4. Ayn and Deb- I absolutely agree! These ideas are great for ALL children- not JUST children with special needs....but especially important for children who are struggling with communication! and Debbie...Yup! I think all SLP's must emphasize these things- I've used the counting technique and many others suggested by our SLP! (who, by the way, is wonderful...and I've learned a TON from her!)

  5. Great stuff Pam! I love #2 regarding not anticipating a child's need, but rather letting things happen organically....thanks for the wisdom.


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