Coaching Parents to Foster Their Child’s Expressive Language Skills

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I recently had the opportunity to provide tele-speech-language services to a toddler with autism spectrum disorder. I knew it would be difficult to have him sit in front of a computer for long periods, so I decided that I would employ a “parent coaching” approach, empowering his parents to more effectively help their son.

I started by having the parents videotape their daily interactions with him, which revealed that they were aware of their son’s difficulties and in-tune with his communication needs. However, even though this little boy appeared quite bright, it was difficult to distinguish when he was answering a question from what he had learned, or if it was a rote response. The parents had specific goals they wanted their son to achieve, so how was I going to help them?

I provided the boy’s parents with information about expressive language development and explained that their expectations appeared to be beyond this child’s current capabilities (determined by the boy’s age, as well as his disability). Next I took the language and vocabulary skills the parents wanted their son to learn—such as labeling an apple—and broke them out into smaller steps. These are the types of activities I suggest parents use to help a child grasp a language concept:

  • Present the child with several apples, preferably of different colors.
  • Talk about the outside of the apples: color, shape, size, smell, taste and texture.
  • Cut open the apples (“What do you see?”) , and eat some of each, talking about how it sounds and tastes as you bite into each piece.
  • Cut an apple in half horizontally and use washable tempera paints to make apple prints on paper using the different colors apples can be.
  • Find a simple recipe to make applesauce or another food from apples.
  • Eat apple slices with peanut butter and talk about how it tastes, and about the messiness and stickiness.
  • Make a pretend apple out of PlayDoh.
  • Compare the “fake” apple with the real one, explaining that you can eat a “real” apple but not the “pretend.” This models analytical thinking.
  • Bring in another fruit, such as an orange, and do the same steps.
  • Try making and drinking homemade orange juice.
  • Compare an apple to an orange.
  • Show video clips of people picking apples and oranges, showing how both grow on a tree.
  • Add bananas, doing the first seven steps (tastes great with peanut butter).
  • Roll the items across the floor and talk about how they roll. Compare.
  • Use this method to teach about common fruits you either purchase or see in the market.

Of course, just relating these steps to parents isn’t enough, because they have a tendency to take over for their child if they see the child struggling. For example, it’s tempting for them to place the child’s hands on the paper to make the apple prints, which removes the child from the process and leads to a loss of interest. To help parents avoid this, I explain that learning involves making mistakes. Other suggestions I provide include:

  • When speaking to your child, keep your sentences simple and to the point (approximately three to four words per utterance: “Are you hungry?” versus “Are you ready to go have some sandwiches for lunch?” Expanding utterances will come along a bit later!
  • Speak slowly because it may take the child additional time to process the information.
  • Do not require the child to look you in the eye when you are speaking to him. A glance at your face, especially at this age, should suffice. Toddlers are busy-bodies and need to keep moving and exploring.
  • If you ask a child a comprehension question, he or she may provide a quick or rote answer to be able to do what he wants to do.
  • Allow time to just play with your child. Let the child direct the play. Have a few toys out to choose from and follow his or her lead.
  • Make simple remarks about what is going on, but avoid asking questions to probe for an answer: “What color is your truck? How about that car? What is this part of the car called?” This is play time, not teaching time.
  • Model out loud how to think about items: “You have a big, blue truck! Wow! Mine is small. I have a small, yellow truck. “
  • Model out loud how to problem-solve (over-and-over-and-over again): “Oops! The wheel came off my truck. Hmmm. How can I fix it? {looking over the whole truck while thinking….} If I get something to help the wheel stay on, I should be able to fix it. If I use glue, the wheel may not spin.”
  • Allow some “quiet” play time as well and let your child do the talking (or not if he so chooses). This is a great opportunity to just sit and listen to what your child is saying (to you and/or the toys).

I have parents send me some YouTube video of them performing some of these activities with their child. In subsequent sessions, we discuss what works well (and not so well) with the child, and I share more activity ideas and literature with them.

Tracy Sippl, MS, CCC-SLP, is a Seymour, Wisc.-based speech-language pathologist and tele-therapist with Cumberland Therapy Services. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 18, Telepractice. This post was adapted from a post on the Cumberland Therapy blog,  Right Therapy–Right Results–Right Now.

Comments

  1. Lylyth Grey says:

    I love these suggestions and the word play. My boys showed no signs of being on the autism spectrum yet, I had always believed in using words to teach and play. Younger children seemed to respond to short phrases and my boys always had fun during learning time. When we would have play time, with and without friends over, they would use their words to help each other. I have always used the techniques I started my boys with around other children and the parents thought I was odd. Thank you for sharing this experience with everyone so that others my learn to love learning as we did.

    • Thank you, Lylyth, for your comments. Playing with our children is such a crucial part of cognitive and linguistic development which, in the general public, seems to be overlooked. Parents/Caregivers don’t always have the luxury of time to sit down and just play; some parents/caregivers do not care to, and others want to “teach” during that time which is an almost “reflexive” behavior. As an SLP, I thoroughly enjoy brainstorming different ways to play as well as what toys/things can be used allowing me to “set up” the context for learning. Sometimes it feels like “subliminal teaching” and having fun all-in-one.