The Wonder of Words

Words are delicious! They’re the icing on the communication cupcake, aren’t they?! Why? Because human beings want to be understood. We want to understand each other. Words have the potential to make communication easier, depending on our skill level at using them. Many kids seem to pick up the language process so easily, it almost seems magical. Nothing is quite as thrilling as hearing words pop out of a child’s mouth for the first time! Using language successfully may seem magical, but there are many, many learning processes that take place that we often take for granted.

“Most of us never think about communication development until we have a child who is language delayed. We eagerly wait for every new word our child says! I learned the skill of taking turns back-and-forth with actions and sounds is often overlooked by parents who are in a rush for words. Unless children learn how to do this, they will not know how to stay in conversations no matter how many words they can say!” — James D MacDonald, Communicate With Your Child

Supporting the Communication Climb Towards Words

Kids with sensory and other inward challenges can have as much trouble with language development as a child with significant physical challenges has learning to climb a staircase. The struggle may not be as visible, but the challenges are most certainly present. Dr. James D MacDonald recommends that instead of coaxing a child from an adult level (the top of the staircase), it can be more effective to join the child at their level, or maybe just one step up.

Relax and Grow Together

Often with delayed children, a sense of urgency to “teach” them to talk is felt. We forget to learn about and appreciate the current level they are experiencing. Words are like the beautiful flowers that bloom after many unseen processes have taken place within the plant. Meaningful interactions are like the water and sun in this process. Sure we all want those wonderful words to bloom – but if they’re not blooming, individualized support and encouragement may be needed. We want to provide the precise, necessary ingredients to support blossoming language skills. That means we need to pay special attention.

No Auto-Pilot

Adults who are accustomed to yacking away begin to realize that auto-pilot will not work with a child who is not able to attend easily. To help the child attend, we have to become aware (yes, another free gift). Words are powerful things! The power is in the understanding behind the words. Otherwise words are just “babble.” Don’t misunderstand, babble can be important too. Babble is important for playing with words, sounds and practicing pronunciation. However, if it is meaning we are trying to convey to a child, our babbling away is not going to cut it. The child may even become quite skilled at tuning us out. The non-verbal connections must come first. Words are a sophisticated way of representing meaning and exchanging ideas/thoughts. To demonstrate the communicative nature we want words to have, adults want to first demonstrate the rules of “conversation” which is back-and-forth interaction with words. As with non-verbal connecting, we can use the same guidelines:

  1. Allow the Child to Lead – Words can not have meaning unless there is a “communicative point” or a point of “joint focus.” Both parties must mentally connect on the subject matter at hand. When a child cannot follow an adult’s lead, the communicative point can be established by paying attention to the where the child is directing his/her attention.
  2. Strive for Awareness and Balance – This means after speaking to a child, you wait for a response. Become aware of the child’s non-verbal as well as verbal responses, and build your “conversation” accordingly. Let go of constantly trying to direct the child’s attention to a pre-decided agenda. For a child who does not know how to interact, it is important to spend more time encouraging reciprocal influence on each other – the ability to interact is the foundation to the ability to converse with words.
  3. Enjoy Each Other. Do you need the child to talk or perform in order to enjoy being with him/her? If so, why? People want to feel accepted and loved unconditionally. Children want to feel safe and comfortable with the adults who care for and work with them. The quality of their lives depends on us. We can not pressure a child into developing language with our unhappiness or disapproval. It may even have the opposite result, because the child is likely to avoid interacting with us more strongly. We can let them know that we appreciate their presence in our lives. We can extend sensitivity for the challenges they are experiencing. Strive to understand him/her to the best of your ability, because this is what it means to truly relate. When you do not understand, be open to learning – model to the child how to keep trying. After all, isn’t that what we are wanting the child to do? Every child enjoys being with someone who recognizes and respects his/her uniqueness. Don’t we all?

“It’s one thing to look at someone’s shoes and comment. It’s another thing to actually put them on and see how it feels.” — Carly Fleischmann

Converse at Any Level

By following these guidelines, even babbling can be transformed into two-way verbal games. The power is in the connecting through understandings, whether that be the official concept that the word represents OR simply the enjoyment of playing with sounds – conversations can take place on many levels. For a child not yet interacting, reciprocal exchanges through word play can be starting points to more complex understandings. As social trust and connections are built, so is motivation, and the child often opens the door for more.

Joining Jake’s Stair Step

Jake often wants to go somewhere, he doesn’t care where. Since many times he refuses to even get out of the car, I think he mainly just enjoys going for a drive. Upon waking him one morning he asked me immediately, “Go bye-bye?” I responded cheerfully, “Absolutely, Jake, we need to run to the store today.” Jake obviously enjoyed my phrasing, as he repeated back, “Absolutely!” with a great deal of enthusiasm. For the next hour at least, we had a wonderful exchange with simply playing with “Absolutely!” It is a wonderful word, and it can be said in a variety of fun ways as Jake and I discovered together. You can also interchange it with “most definitely!” and “Certainly!” I mean, the possibilities are truly endless. So while Jake is not yet engaging in complex conversations, I can still appreciate and enjoy the beginning exchanges he can engage in by placing myself right on the same step, and (through introducing new vocabulary) just one step up. It builds his confidence in his ability to engage with me, and shows him I understand and love him just as he is. ABSOLUTELY!!!

Play with Words

Have the attitude that talking is FUN! Being conscious and putting passion into what’s coming out of your mouth can make words and language sound very appealing. Even my son Jake, who has significant language challenges, quickly picks up the cuss word phrases he’s heard! Lifeless and monotonous talk tends to get filtered out from the child’s attention. Remember, this child is perceiving the world differently, and may have more important inward things to attend to – so we want to inspire and motivate by being irresistible. The child’s perception of what you are saying is more important than what you are actually saying – so you want to be aware of your presentation and the child’s response.

Ways to Add Life and Meaning to What You Say:

  1. Talk less/listen and use actions more
  2. Play with tones and voices (even singing!)
  3. Exaggerate expressions and gestures
  4. Appreciate the process –vary your approach when necessary
  5. Focus on language as interactive
  6. Make it visual/Put Action behind it

The Importance of Diversifying:

I learned the importance of varying one’s approach to communicating from Jake. He has a huge vocabulary and amount of memorized phrases he uses to express his wants and ideas. However, expressing new thoughts is very challenging for him. When he is trying to communicate a new idea he has, he often repeats the exact same thing louder and louder hoping mom will finally understand. For example, one time in the car Jake began requesting “the ver song.” Me, “the ver song? I’m not sure Jake..” Jake –“VER, OHHHH!” This is Jake’s strategy to get me to understand. He says it more loudly and with emphasis, then adds the eureka “ohh!” that he wants ME to say, indicating that I understand. How often do we do something similar when a child isn’t understanding us? Do we say the same exact words with more emphasis and maybe even adding a threatening tone? Thinking of different ways to express what is wanted may be more work, but in the long run it helps everyone’s communication skills grow.

“Language is the software of the mind. Like software, language is simply a tool that we use to create a specific outcome.” — Simon T. Bailey, Release Your Brilliance

The Hardware/Software of Language Development

Humans are not computers, but the analogy can give us a way to conceptualize the complexity of language development. Some kids have plenty of software, but the “hard drive” is not able to fluently decipher and utilize the codes. The hard drive can be thought of as the physical body and non-verbal thoughts – the social and sensational experiences and ideas combined with emotions/actions. The human being as a whole is the hardware for the language processing system. Some kids can understand every word that others say, but lack the ability to integrate this information and direct their body in how to respond. This is where inviting interaction comes in! Learning to interact helps format the hard drive so it can more effectively utilize the software. It’s not necessarily about bombarding the child with more software. It’s about helping make it easier for him/her to process the input (receptive language skills). We also want to encourage his/her ability to USE language (expressive language skills).

Relational Therapies

While I have heard the term “relational therapy” to describe this kind of approach, professional support is expensive and not widely accessible to parents and professionals. Yet. Let’s not wait until the situation improves. For our kids’ sakes, let’s improve the situation. Relational therapies use behavioral therapy strategies, but with more heart. These are complex human beings we are reaching out to. Considering behaviors alone de-humanizes the individual doing the behaviors, and since we can not walk in their shoes it makes sense that we must be open to learning. The good news is conscientious, caring individuals can provide much needed support by learning the basics and creating solutions together as we learn from the kids. Words can not be forced. Understanding how words relate with the entire human experience [action > thoughts > words] within a social context helps us build the relational foundation with an individual who is struggling without putting more pressure on him/her to “talk” than he/she already feels. We learn ways to inspire and encourage vs. pressure, and the results can be miraculous for everyone.

“An open ear is the only believable sign of an open heart.” — David Augsburger

Building Interactive Communication

Infants are naturally treated as though they are trying to communicate meaning to us. Wiggles, movements, facial expressions, sounds, and cries are often interpreted as communication. The first “Da” is automatically encouraged by an excited parent thinking the child said “Da” for Daddy, and trying to get that “Ma” out next. This sets the stage for their language development. When a child is experiencing delays, expand your idea of what meaning they may be expressing. Is the child enjoying making sounds? Is the child mentally rehearsing a scenario? Is the child vocalizing or running around the room as a response to regulate a surge of energy he/she is feeling, or to express an emotion? Seek to understand, not judge the child. There are many programs and books that promote using sign language with infants because it is known that not talking does not mean not thinking. Signing, gesturing, facial expressions, pictures, etc. assist the process of sharing meanings by making communication visual. Building interactive communication means that it will be reciprocal, and at first you may be the only one reciprocating. You show how it is done by tuning in, waiting, listening, watching, and responding to the child with sensitivity and balance.

“We might just as honestly describe a person’s ‘learning disability’ as our own ‘teaching disability’ ” — Herbert Lovett

Non-Interactive Communication

Adults often work with language delayed children in a manner that is equivalent to coaxing the child from the top of the stairs. Constantly using an activity agenda, bombarding the child with questions, verbally reporting on everything the child is doing, frequently directing the child on what to do, etc. are all examples of non-interactive communication. The fact that the child is delayed already shows that the coaxing from the top of the stair method is not working, and he/she may need some extra support and encouragement in building communication skills. Breaking things down by joining at the same step or coaxing from one step up is a sensitive and more effective approach. Sometimes, out of habit or for safety reasons, etc. you may find yourself back at the top of the stair case and that’s okay. The main thing is to make sure that there are times when you consciously adjust to being interactive. Spending periods of time with your attention focused on simply interacting with the child, however he/she is able at the moment, will be the best way you can support his/her communication skills develop.

The Power of Words

Words can limit us or set us free. They can entice and appeal, or they can discourage and offend. They can weaken or empower us if we let them. We form our beliefs by synchronizing what is in our minds and hearts. Words can be to our minds and hearts like food is to the body. From the actions >thoughts>words equation (as described in chapter 4), we can also explore and discover the roots to our words. Be aware of the words you feed yourself and the special children you are blessed to spend time with. Consider the source of the words that you dwell on – are they from commercials? The news? God? friends? family members? Seek out words and phrases that ring true to who you want to be. Feed the child words that will nurture his/her growth. Think about words as Simon T. Bailey suggests in the software quote, upgrade your software periodically to get better results in your life. Model to the children how this is done. We can learn and succeed together. Next chapter….time to CELEBRATE!!!