Language Development

Baby's first communication steps:

Baby's First Communication Steps

Although most children develop language and communication skills naturally, "on their own", there are many strategies that adults can use with their children to enhance communication skills and development. There are many ways that adults often communicate with their children that is adequate for typical language development, however for some, getting an early start on communicating in a better way, may help to reduce a child (at risk) from developing a speech and language delay. I would like to provide periodic "talking tips" to parents and caregivers of children to help in the prevention of communication delays, but just as importantly to help foster improved communication skills between adults and children. Improved communication may help with your child's development of self esteem, increase the trusting relationship between the child and adult, and foster a happy, loving environment in which to grow and learn.

STEP 1: Watch to see your child's interests...

Several strategies can be used to enhance communication with your child. The first step is to notice what your child is interested in talking or learning about. Children will tell us if not verbally, through gesturing, eye gaze, body movements, or vocalizations what is interesting to them. We as parents, caregivers, or "communicators" must "listen" to our child not only with our ears, but with our eyes! When we know what makes our child happy, interested, inquisitive, we can use that to open up the doors of communication even wider. For example: If we are playing blocks with our child and their eye gaze moves from the blocks to the cat who just walked by, we can use this to change the communication/interaction to "talk" and learn about the cat. "oh, there is Kitty. Kitty likes to play", rather than continuing to play with the blocks. You may get a smile, vocalization "kit", or "kitty", or a pointing/reaching gesture. This little act of watching your child's focus of attention and interest and shifting to a "child focused" interaction will allow your child to feel important, and that you are interested in his/her thoughts, and feelings. This is the first foundation in communicating more effectively with your child.

STEP 2: Interact on your child's level...

When we are interacting or playing with our children, it is important to be on the same physical level and eye to eye with your child when communicating. That way, they can see your facial expressions and mouth when talking which provides more information. In addition, it is a natural response to want to teach our children how to do things and to take the lead when playing or interacting. We may show them the correct way to play with toys (i.e. "The shapes go in the matching slot of the shape sorter"). Although this is not a bad way to teach some skills, it is not always the best way to teach communication or language skills. If you are too busy "teaching", you may miss the way the child is learning about objects, activities, etc by experiencing them in many different ways. A child may decide to stack them, or may try to put them in the wrong way. The child is gathering information about the properties of the object, and how things work, even when making mistakes. this can be a golden opportunity to talk about what they are experiencing. For example, instead of saying "no, the shape is a square, it goes here", talk about what the child is doing "Oops, it didn't work. It's a square. It has four corners...". Commenting on what the child is doing , instead of what they are doing wrong, may help open the lines of communication. The most important idea here is observe what the child is doing and/or what the child is interested in or learning, and use that as the focus of interaction. Let the child lead the activity. Once the topic has been decided, it is important to communicate at the child's level. There is a basic rule, IMITATE! Imitate what the child is doing, saying or vocalizing. You can stay at or just above the child's verbal level (i.e., if she/he is using one word utterances, use 1-2 words at a time). If the child says "vroom", you can imitate "vroom" or "vroom fast car". If your child says "ba" while playing with a toy try to extend the sound into an appropriate word (i.e. "bubbles", if you are playing with bubbles). It is important to balance this conversation act. When your child acts or vocalizes, then imitate. Wait (up to 10 seconds) for any kind of response to give plenty of time to process the information. Don't monopolize the "conversation". Waiting is just as important as acting/imitating! Given the opportunity, it is likely your child will respond verbally or nonverbally if you are following the child's lead, and imitating. Think of a see saw, each person takes his/her turn.

STEP 3: Provide a language rich and multisensory environment...

Once you have established a basic communication interaction through play, you can now add more language. Contrary to what many people say and do, using too many questions to elicit a response from your child may leave both of you frustrated (i.e. asking "whats this, whats that"). It puts demands on the child to "say the right thing", and may have the opposite effect from its intention. Instead, try to comment. This involves, identifying your child's focus of attention, imitating their actions/vocal attempts, but adding the appropriate language. Instead of saying "what does a car sound like?", try "vroom, fast car" and wait for the response. You have made an appropriate comment, and modeled the correct language. Your child may then feel at ease to respond with a "vroom" on their own by imitating you. Thus, you elicited the language you wanted, but through voluntary imitation rather than demand. You showed your child what to say in a loving, playful and supportive manner. It is also important to remember to simplify your language level to match your child's during this phase. If your child is nonverbal, use 1-2 words, if he/she is using single words, use 2-3, etc. You want to stay at or just above your child's number of words. When I use the term "multisensory" I refer to all the senses, not just sound/auditory, but visual, touch, and movement for example. We do this when we use gestures or signs when modeling language. This gives a visual clue to what the word means. Often children will use signs or gestures prior to verbal speech because it is an easier way to communicate their wants/needs before they can physically coordinate all the muscles involved in producing the word. This is wonderful because it can alleviate the frustration that many children (and parents) feel when the child is unable to communicate his/her wants and needs. In addition, using signs and gestures draw attention to the word, and helps a child to learn the meaning. Children can learn that they can both "say" and "do" a word to communicate. Remember to use a word along with the sign, so the two are paired together. Say the target word over and over. Repetition will help children to learn the words. (i.e. "Go car. Fast car. My car" ...).

Following these simple strategies may seem fairly easy, but putting them into practice can be a skill! You must abstain from old habits and train new ones. Any time you are changing a behavior, it takes initial concentration and focus. But, the effects will hopefully be well worth the effort!

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