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Sunday, April 19, 2020

Communicating Made Easy for Parents at Home During COVID-19

So you’ve been cooped up with your children for more than a month.  Schools are closed, and you may not have your home therapists anymore. You might or might not have had school materials sent home or services provided in telepractice. You might be pulling your hair out.

What else can you do?  You can actually do a lot.  As a matter of fact, you probably are doing a lot that you don’t even realize.  And none of this will require any new materials, worksheets, or personnel.

I have been trying to provide parents with a variety of home suggestions over social media since social distancing began. Many of those suggestions have included AAC modeling plans and word suggestions.  All have revolved around daily routines or play.  Or books. Books are good, too! 

Routines are one of the best ways to build language in your nonverbal or minimally verbal child.  It is also how you started teaching any of your children language skills. 
If you’re looking for ways to implement the 200 opportunities per day that are the minimum needed for your AAC user to become competent, look no further than the routines in his or her life.
So, what’s so key about routines?  Well, these are often the times when parents speak most to their children.  And what they say is often repeated over and over again, using the same words and in the same order every time.  This repetition and predictability helps children build their vocabulary and their schema for how their life is organized.
Typically developing children first learn a lot of early language based on the routines and familiar activities within their environment.  Routines by definition are predictable; they use predictable vocabulary, predictable sequences, and occur frequently.  They create a structure onto which children can build language; especially vocabulary words.
By taking a look at how the day unfolds, you can create simple scripts for routines that help build communication by thinking about the vocabulary needed for each step within the routine for a variety of communication functions.
  1. offering choices as often as possible
  2. using consistent vocabulary and sequences within frequently repeated classroom routines
  3. sabotaging the environment during a routine task so that children need to communicate

Typical children learn the meanings of words by having caregivers say the words within routines over and over and over again.   By having those caregivers respond when he begins to communicate (which may begin simply as pointing), he learns an appropriate way to ask for something rather than screaming or crying.
But when we want children to move beyond pointing, and they do not have verbal words to use, we must present an alternative mode of communicating.

By providing pictures for communication for the child, we put ourselves in a position of having to model that “different” language system, just as we modeled use of speech for our neurotypical children. 

For our neuro-atypical children; learning language takes a similar path, but perhaps a slower one that requires some modification of our planning interactions and modification of their expressive mode.

For example, break routines down into smaller component steps.  Help to ensure that the child understands the sequence of the routine.  And say the same things every time at every step.  In this way, the child becomes familiar with the words you use.

Be flexible. Follow the child’s lead, but rather than denying him some off-topic or off-sequence behavior, make it a contingency that he do what is involved in the routine in order to gain access to what he wanted to do.
Make sure to use appropriate language to label or describe what catches the child’s interest, as well as what is involved in the routine.  By naming and describing what caught the child’s interest, you provide input of vocabulary that is motivating.

Think outside the box.  While we want the child to learn the structure and attending language of the routine, we also want to take advantage of those moments when the child’s interest is piqued by something else in the environment.

Also consider that a routine can be made out of any repeated activity.  Think about the things that the child and caregiver do together.  No matter how small or extended, a routine can be a pivotal part of the child’s language intervention.

So, if you’re looking for ways to implement core vocabulary with your child, you need look no further than the everyday routines.

Play is the work of children, and we too often don’t let them do enough of it.  Particularly once they get to school age we’re so busy working on academic skills that we forget children need to play to learn.  The key here is to let your child choose the play activity.  And if that means lining up cars or spinning on a swing, so be it.  You can find a way to make any activity interactive.

When I work with children I play with bubbles, with Lego blocks, with play houses, with fun apps, with my portable DVD player that I would not be without.  I also have nail polish and eye shadow.  I have DVDs from Sesame Street to High School Musical to the Super Bowl and wrestling.

Because what happens during play and fun interactions is "real" communication.  

Reading is necessary for children to learn vocabulary, story structure (which is  also the basis for conversations, narratives, and more), and to gain background knowledge in areas/topics with which they don’t have personal experience.  And if your child won’t sit still for you to read him a book will he listen on an iPad to a story read to him through technology?

Reading aloud to our children is so important. Research says they should be read to at least 15 minutes per day.  Which doesn’t seem like a lot. My kids would rarely settle for anything under 30 minutes - and they could be happy for hours being read to. Even my hyperactive, inattentive one would stop for stories.

Reading to children opens up so many worlds.  For one thing, reading comprehension is based on understanding vocabulary.  Listening to stories with varied vocabulary in an illustrated context provides children with much-needed understanding of different words than they hear throughout their day.
Reading comprehension also requires a degree of background knowledge.  It is difficult to understand a story about a topic or event that you have no frame of reference for. But children can’t experience everything first-hand.  Reading a variety of books to them provides some background knowledge on a variety of subjects.

Screen time is a hotly debated issue, and we know we want kids to have quality screen time. What better way to harness their interest in technology than with the many quality book apps on the market.  The Nosy Crow apps have always been among my favorite; their stories are interactive and have some great humorous elements that keep kids engaged.
For students who want a bit more independence, the low reading level and high interest of the books are attractive to many of our students.
Dial in to your child’s interests and find a variety of books - both fiction and nonfiction - to keep them engaged. And make sure to keep their AAC systems accessible so they can talk about the books. Encourage comments and opinions, and make a game of retelling the stories.  Epic and Vooks are two other sources, and subscriptions to many sources are free during this unprecedented time.

Books are our window to the world and, for many of our children, the only way they will experience some things. Open the window, let in the light, and pave the way for literacy skills.

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