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Ways to Support Children who have Language and Communication Needs.

Updated on November 8, 2014

There are many methods that can be used help and support children who have language and communication needs. Which of these methods and strategies will be the most effective will depend on the nature of each individual child’s difficulties and needs.

In the UK, the Common Core provides guidelines and information on communication and language difficulties and further information and ideas can be sought from agencies such as The Communication Trust.

In order to build empathy and listening skills in children who have language and communication difficulties, adults may need to adapt their communication skills to suit the child they are working with. If a child is unable to communicate verbally then alternative methods may need to be found and used. These include the use of sign language; voice output communication aids (VOCAs) and visual systems such as PECs (picture exchange communication system) that use symbols, objects and pictures to facilitate communication without the need for speech.

It is very important to get to know a child and their family as this will help you to choose the most appropriate methods, strategies and where needed aids to help them. Each child and family will have differing needs and these should be taken into account along with the different personalities and learning styles of the child. Recognise and remain aware that many factors can contribute to language and communication difficulties. Examples of these contributing factors include:

  • Disabilities and special educational needs (SEN)
  • English not being a families first language
  • Delayed communication skills due to an impoverished family or community background
  • Temporary difficulties caused by illness or family issues

It is important to isolate the reasons why a child is having difficulties with language and communicating so that the most appropriate and affective interventions and support can be offered.

Argumentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

Argumentative and alternative communication can provide children who have communication difficulties with alternatives to speech. This can aid their communication skills greatly and reduce the amount of frustration they may feel at not being able to say what they need to or be understood. Sign languages such as Makaton, British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) are common forms of AAC and can be very useful for enabling children who struggle with written or spoken language to communicate effectively. Signing has a great advantage in that no additional or special equipment is needed and the simplified version, known as Makaton can be taught even to very young children. Sign language can also be used over a range of communication difficulties including for children who have speech problems, autism or who have hearing related difficulties. One downside of using sign language is that it can take some time to teach a child and for them to be comfortable in using the signs.

Electronic communication systems can be used to help children who are unable to speak. By pressing buttons on a keyboard or word board a child can input what they want to say and the machine can speak for them. These machines can be very bulky and hard to transport which can limit their usefulness or the environments in which they can be used. Also, unless the child is able to spell well or read they may be limited in what they are able to use these systems for due to the fact that they will need to select the correct letter or word buttons.

Communication boards are charts that smaller cards can be stuck to in order to represent words, items or aspects of a child’s day. Communication boards can easily be adapted to suit an individual child and can be made quite easily using a computer and software such as Microsoft Publisher or Boardmaker. The cards used can include symbols, pictures and words or a combination of all three depending on the child’s needs. New cards can be added as needed enabling the system to grow with the child and adapt to their needs and interests.

For children who also have physical disabilities and so are unable to use many forms of alternative communication, eye pointing can be a useful method of enabling communication. For this method to work well the child and a partner, such as a support worker, parent or teaching assistant must be able to work closely together. The partner will need to be aware of any shift in the child’s gaze in order to be able to understand what they are trying to communicate. Eye pointing can be used to communicate literal and abstract concepts depending on the abilities of each child and can be adapted quite easily to their particular needs and interests. For example: a child could look at a relevant object or picture to communicate that they wish to talk about that.

Enabling Environments for Children with Language and Communication Needs

An enabling environment is one that is created so that children will feel safe and at home despite any extra needs they may have. When children feel safe and secure they are more able to explore and learn about, touch, manipulate and interact with toys and other objects and the people around them. To help create a truly enabling environment for children who have language and communication difficulties, adaptive or alternative methods of communication should be available to them and anyone that works with them.

Resources that can be used to help children navigate the environment are things that make them able to communicate their needs, wishes, likes and dislikes to the other children and adults around them. Symbols and picture or word cards can be used and items or places can be labelled, for example.
Displays could include written instructions, routines and descriptions for children who find it difficult to follow or remember verbal instructions. Visual resources such as visual timetables and schedules can be helpful for children who cannot read or are more visual thinkers.

Ideas for Creating an Enabling Environment

When designing resources remember that too many or very bright colours can be overwhelming or over stimulating for some children, particularly those that have additional needs. This can cause distress and also make the resource difficult to use if a child is struggling with their being too much sensory input directed at them at once.

Approaches that use minimal speech can be very effective and may help children to feel more at ease. Using only key words can help to limit and child’s upset or frustration with hearing language and will also help them to focus on the main words that they will need to ask for help or talk to people in the future.

Try to include enabling and support activities throughout the day rather than just in specific sessions as this helps to stop children from feeling singled out. This type of approach also means that more work can be done with a child overall.

Label equipment, places and places where things are stored. This could include toys, books, furniture, sink, toilets, whiteboard, doors and many more. Words or words and pictures can be used depending on the child’s needs.

Be wary of large colourful wall displays as they can feel daunting and overwhelming to some children and may make the environment less positive for them.

Too much noise can be very difficult for a child who has language or communication difficulties. It can make it even harder for them to listen to what they need to and to remember what was said. Some children, especially if they have other needs such as autism may find it very hard to tune out background noise and focus on a task.

Give children plenty of time to respond. Language and communication disorders can mean that it takes a child longer to take in and process what is being said and asked of them. They may need extra time before they are able to respond appropriately. Rushing them, interrupting or talking further in an attempt to help them understand can confuse their thought processes however well meant it may be.

© 2014 Claire

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