Building Blocks for Communication

Watch a loving parent interact with her young baby. Baby babbles “oooo” as mama picks up a teething biscuit. With great enthusiasm, mama responds “Yum, you want a cookie!” Baby gets that cookie and, even more importantly, she gets adoring interaction with one of the most valued people in her life.
"Yum! You want a cookie!"
Mama never doubts her little girl will learn to talk. Her hope inspires her to repeat scenes like this thousands of times over the next couple of years. The two go through this ritual of babbling in the context of an activity, pairing the babble with a word and a reward, and language naturally unfolds. Replay this scene over thousands of years, over millions of families. It is timeless, universal, and seems effortless because it is fueled by hopeful expectation.
Children without the ability to develop verbal speech deserve that same support as they develop alternative communication. The sad thing is, it rarely happens this way for them.
I don’t know why. Maybe people view non-verbal communication as “broken,” needing to be “fixed” rather than naturally caught. Maybe because it is not the way the adults naturally communicate; they feel it must be structured and purposefully developed. They’ve never seen it modeled. It may take planning to have materials ready…
True, something outside our experience may need more structure for us to teach. BUT that doesn’t mean we have to leave behind hope for communication or to impose unnatural strategies.
Perhaps even more than their peers with speech, our kids need the benefits of the kind of support illustrated in that mother-baby story setting the stage for our discussion.
What does the mother from that story teach us about building the foundation for effective communication?
1) Build relationship. We value the child, we express that value to the child.
We value their efforts. We pay attention to them. We notice when they are trying to communicate. For some of our kids, the motor effort is so tremendous that they simply haven’t the energy to repeat themselves. Eye gaze is a very quiet response mode; you have to be watching or you will miss that telling glance.
Teachers, therapists, even extended family that doesn’t see the child daily need to remember that it takes some time to build a relationship. If a child doesn’t try to communicate with you right off the bat, they are no different than many speaking children. It can take time to become familiar. Give yourself time to tune in to the child’s subtle cues. Give the child time to feel safe with you.
Relationships that nurture are those that believe the best in someone. We hold high hopes. We expect good things for them. We expect that they will progress and grow. All kids deserve this kind of expectation.
Our illustration showed mama cherishing baby’s stumbling efforts, shaping them with a loving model spoken correctly. We accept whatever our kids can offer, assign meaning to their efforts, and lovingly model a way they can express that idea more clearly. We expect that they will show more clarity down the road.
2) Build trust. The child has to trust that you are listening—really listening. And you have to trust that the child means what she says. We do this when we take what he says at face value. He knows we will act on his requests, honor his choices and opinions...just like we would for a speaking child. That is going to make him continue trying and learning.
He may make mistakes. He may touch the symbol for “asparagus” when he really wanted “ice cream.” That’s okay.
You don’t ask him, “Are you sure? Show me again.” That shows him you doubt what he has said, and doubt stands opposite of the trust you are trying to both show and to cultivate in him.
Nope, you offer him a bite of asparagus, just as he asked. He’ll purse those little lips in refusal. That opens the door for you to say, “But you told me you wanted asparagus. Have you changed your mind?” There—you have affirmed what he said, and you have given him a way to back out. You trusted him; you acted in a way that allows him to trust you.
You offer him the symbols again.  This time (hopefully!), he’ll touch “ice cream.” Over repeated practice in different situations, you can trust that this mix-up won’t happen again. You may never be able to get him to choose asparagus again (try steaming it ever-so-lightly...makes a big difference).
In our opening story, mama didn’t ignore the baby. She didn’t refuse her the cookie because her request wasn’t perfect. She didn’t pull a fast one, swapping out the cookie for a healthier snack. She is teaching her that she can trust mama to meet her requests, however budding they are right now.
3) Build conversation. Communication grows when people reach out to one another to share ideas. It does not grow out of drill.

One of my favorite mantras as a teacher was “Teach, don’t test.” A reasonable communication corollary would be “Talk, don’t test.”
We teach—we talk—by living life alongside our child. We give them natural reasons to listen and to express themselves.
If you want to teach colors, talk about the colors in your world. Marvel at the blue of the sky, the green of the trees, the red of the tomato as you point them out. Support him—both receptively and expressively--with the color words he needs. Give your child a choice between outfits/blocks/cars of two colors.
Don't hold up a banana and quiz her by asking what color it is. There’s the possibility she'll assume you aren't clever enough to figure it out yourself. And if you ask her to repeat herself over and over, she will give up trying to teach someone who simply cannot learn, no matter how many times she has tried to teach you that a banana is yellow.
Similarly, if the child tells you he wants the red crayon, give him the red crayon! Don’t ask him to repeat himself a dozen times! Sadly, this is a HUGE and heinous problem non-verbal communicators face. We do not do this to speaking children. Our non-speaking children deserve the same respect.
I can't tell you how many kids get branded as incompetent when it was the teacher who set them up for failure by 1) asking stupidly obvious questions that insult the child, 2) asking the child to repeat themselves ad nauseum, until finally 3) the child gives up (and is, at that point, saddled with all kinds of demeaning labels).
Our mama heroine did not demand that baby repeat her “word” over and over, and especially not  until it was pronounced with dictionary precision. She didn’t stand at the counter and ask her, “What’s this?” No, mama took baby's initiation and responded. She kept the conversation going even though the baby could not add anything more. This is a child who is not at risk of giving up.
Three simple, critical building blocks foster communication: relationship, trust, conversation. Our story illustrates all three. If your child's story doesn't illustrate them yet, how can you change that?

You might also like these posts:
Building Communication through Play
Let's Talk: Get the Conversation Started
"She Talks with her Eyes"

Photo by abbybatchelder. 

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