By: Courtney Leonard, MS, CCC-SLP/L
Editor’s Note: Please welcome, Speech-Language Pathologist, Courtney, to the blog. She is a big fan of music and has sprinkled references to a number of songs below. See if you can spot them all!
The road to verbal communication is a long and winding road. This road is often met with many roadblocks (i.e., mismatches in communication) or “communication breakdowns” as well as many repairs which can then “lead you to the door” of effective and efficient verbal communication. Each breakdown affords us another opportunity to broaden and engage in a wider variety of communication opportunities.
Communication is happening all around you every minute of the day. From a baby cooing in response to a loved one’s verbalizations, a toddler pointing and grunting to his favorite snack, a teenager expressing frustration with the boys her age, to adults imparting wisdom on the next generation- communication is something we do day in and day out. We communicate for a wide variety of purposes including expressing wants, needs, thoughts and emotions. We communicate to build relationships, repair relationships, and grow relationships. We communicate to advocate for ourselves, to forgive, and to make promises. Communication often, becomes such a natural part of our day that we often forget just how complex communication is.
Communication comes in a variety of forms both verbal and non-verbal. The term “communication” often brings pictures of spoken words and conversation to mind; however, communication is so much more.
Before we reach our destination of verbal communication, we have to learn how to be effective non-verbal communicators. We begin growing our non-verbal skills as infants and young babies by learning to regulate our bodies with loved ones, learning to attend to faces, maintain attention to faces, and responding to faces to which we are attending (e.g., smiling when smiled at, frowning when frowned at, cooing when talked to, etc.). As we continue our road to verbal communication, we learn to initiate engagement with our caregivers using our voices and smiles and learn to continue engagement with our caregivers by continually responding or initiating to maintain attention. As these circles become more frequent, natural, and smooth, purposeful non-verbal communication begins starting with gaze shifting (i.e., moving eyes toward preferred activity/toy), and joint attention (i.e., making eye contact with caregiver, shifting gaze to preferred toy/thing to comment on, and shifting gaze back to caregiver). I like to refer to “joint attention” as the skill we acquire so we can say “Did you see that cute guy!?” to a friend without having to use words. As gaze shifting and joint attention strengthen reaching, pointing, and gesturing begin to emerge. Once these skills are strongly in place, then we begin to see first words.
The crazy thing is all of this development happens within the first year of life! These skills often develop without much thought or ado and as parents, therapists, and caregivers, we are hardwired to receive and foster these very sophisticated communication opportunities just as children are hardwired to develop them.
There are times, however, that these skills don’t appear to have developed in children. This may happen for a variety of reasons including: physical limitations, sensory difficulties, early trauma, neuro difficulties, etc. Whatever the reason for the delay in developing these early communication skills, there are a few things you can do in order to begin working on developing these skills.
- Find times when your child is calm and regulated before interacting. This may be while you are swinging them in your arms, during diaper changes, bath times, laying on the floor or on the couch, or any other time your child is calm. Having calm and regulated bodies provides the foundation for meaningful interactions.
- Be silly! Use big facial expressions and lots of intonation in your voice to catch your child’s eye. You can sing songs, blow raspberries, play peek-a-boo, or just talk with your child. When you notice they are attending to you, stick with the thing you are doing. Your child may need a break from the interaction at some point (i.e., they may look away or walk away) but you can use the same intonation and facial expressions to try and woo them back into the interaction. This takes a lot of practice and attempts to find what will work. Don’t give up, keep trying new things until you find what works best for you and your child.
- Move slower. Many times I find that kids need a slower pace in order to engage and maintain interactions. You can still use fun, giant intonation and facial expressions but use them more slowly and more exaggerated. This will give the child a chance to keep up with you and an opportunity to maintain engagement for longer periods.
Many things can impact a child’s development of his non-verbal and verbal skills. At times, it may be appropriate for a child to receive an occupational therapy or physical therapy evaluation and start a treatment plan to work on their sensory systems and/or strengthening of their bodies in conjunction with working on increasing their language skills.
Take our free screening tool, the Ages & Stages Questionnaire , to help measure and keep track of your child’s growth and development.
By detecting developmental delays early, you have the power to change lives and educational outcomes for children! If delays are identified, Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley can offer the support needed to be school-ready and build a foundation for a lifetime of learning. Learn more at eastersealsdfvr.org.