Here it is…the NUMBER ONE question I get asked as a speech-language pathologist….
“What can I do at home to help my child learn to communicate?”
A perfect question to ask! Speech-language therapy is important, but often people underestimate the importance of what occurs after little ones have left my room, when the speech supplies are packed away and I am at home resting (righhhhtt!) What occurs outside of the speech room that can help kids learn to communicate? TEMPTATION.
Temptation is a pretty incredible motivator. Have you ever been tempted by a piece of chocolate cake? Or another few minutes of snoozing after the alarm yanks you out of a perfect, deep sleep? Maybe a more-than-accidental look at that reality t.v. show that adds nothing to your intellect but is so mindlessly enjoyable? Ok, clearly I am bringing my own background experience into play to illustrate a point, but nonetheless…temptation causes you to think. To act…to react. Temptation is motivating and at times pretty powerful (I admit, visions of that chocolate cake are lurking in my brain as I highlight this concept.)
For a child, communication temptations often bridge the gap between “I’m getting by ok with things the way they are” and “I need to let someone know I really mean business here!” Parents are often surprised and a bit embarrassed when they realize how many opportunities they miss to “tempt” their language-delayed youngster to communicate. As a mom, I recognize how easy it is to let these opportunities slip by us. We know our children better than any other people on the planet. We are in tune to their every need, mood, curiosity and disappointment. It’s only natural to anticipate what our child wants or needs, and help them get it. But communication temptations can provide gentle motivators to express those wants and needs, and have a huge impact on a child’s functional communication.
As an SLP, I regularly build communication temptations into therapy sessions, starting right at the door to my therapy room. The door stays locked, and “opens the door,” if you will, to allow some natural communication to occur. Requests for “open” and “help” can be elicited, or for higher-level students, answers to questions like, “What do we need to unlock the door?” or “Look through the window, at the table…what do you see inside?”
Once inside, I often employ a few favorite “tools” to tempt students to communicate. I love presenting therapy activities encased in a closed bag or box (I’ve even been dubbed, “Bag Lady” before, due to the bags I often use in therapy…usually accompanied by piggy-backed tunes with lyrics I “write” as we discover items and reinforce language concepts. Music, by the way, is also a great therapy tool and does not need to be sung well to be effective…I will save that topic for a different blog entry!)
Anyway, hidden materials invite children to make guesses, to make requests, to watch closely as items are revealed. My favorite items to create further temptations include containers with tight lids, wind-up toys, building-block toys and cause-effect toys.
Wind up toys are a great way of getting students to direct action and make requests. More, stop, go, my turn, and help are functional words that go hand-in-hand with wind up toys (that can be difficult for a child to wind on their own.) I even have a broken wind-up toy that is great for eliciting language in developing communicators (Uh oh! What’s wrong?? Oh no! It’s broken. The toy is broken! Need help!) If we get the toy working, we can excitedly shout things like, “Yay! Go, Go, Go! Here we go! The toy can go!”) Simple? Yes. Effective? Definitely.
Containers are another great therapy tool. Clear, acrylic containers filled with colorful objects are very motivating when presented to a curious child. They can’t wait to reach inside and…oh, wait — the lid is stuck. They need help. They want you to open. They want the lid off. Containers are very motivating when students can see what is inside but they have a hard time accessing it. Here is a fun container I recently discovered. It’s a Michael Graves container from Target that opens by squeezing a butterfly clip on the top of the canister (read: difficult for kids to do on their own!):
Other favorite therapy tools are things like bubbles (with lids tightly closed,) toys that produce sound or light when activated, and toys that have pieces that build/go together (e.g., train tracks, housed in tightly-sealed containers!) Throughout a play session, students get repetitive practice making verbal requests (help, more, turn,etc.,) directing other people’s actions, labeling actions (stop, go, pop, open, etc.) and communicating their ideas as they explore and play. Language modeling, expansion and stimulation is built into the play, with instant reinforcers for any communication attempts.
To support verbal language or for use with nonverbal students, I often use communication boards (made with Boardmaker) using core vocabulary words that convey a variety of language functions. These same words are a focus when used on a voice-output device. The word combinations that can be modeled using these few words are quite numerous:
Helping students acquire functional communication skills is very rewarding. Progress can be made quite quickly with the right set of motivators and expectations. I may be the “Bag Lady” who plays with toys for a large part of my day :) but what is more tempting or motivating than a bag of fun? And what is more fulfilling than helping a child learn to communicate their basic wants, needs and desires? Not even a piece of chocolate cake can top that experience!