Guest post by Tamara Kaldor, Developmental Therapist, Director of Chicago PLAY Project
A child’s “communication toolbox” is best strengthened through a multi-disciplinary approach. It is exciting for me to be able to collaborate with my colleagues at Communication Therapy + Friends who truly understand that communication skills go beyond spoken words and vocabulary building.
It takes all of a child’s mental and physical abilities to communicate effectively so they can play with peers and participate in the school environment successfully. As a Developmental Therapist, I focus primarily on helping children’s social-emotional development through play and I also provide inclusion support for children in school and community programs. My goal as a therapist is to help every child develop the skills they need to form joyful and meaningful relationships and to be successfully included. This is done primarily through play. Play is important developmental work for all children. Through play, children learn to use non-verbal communication skills, negotiate with peers, communicate their ideas effectively, and play out their fears and fantasies safely.
Communication Toolbox: Non-verbal communication
I want to focus on why non-verbal communication skills are one of the most important tools a child must develop and learn how to use effectively.
Much of how we communicate (about 85-90% of our day) is through non-verbal communication and it is also the first level of language that ALL children develop– before spoken words. Non-verbal communication is extremely important for young children to master because the ability to read facial expressions, gesture (e.g., pointing), communicate with a peer while being active on the playground, or express their emotions appropriately is what helps children to develop their earliest friendships during playtime. To learn more about why non-verbal communication skills enhance a child’s communication skills and school performance read this excerpt from Dr. Stanley Greenspan on the importance of non-verbal communication from Playground Politics: understanding the emotional life of your school-age child
When will my child talk?
ALL children must develop some non-verbal communication skills before they will utter their first words, whether they do so verbally or through augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). For many children we work with, we must first start by strengthening their non-verbal communication skills before we can work on speech goals. We realize this is disappointing for many families to hear, but non-verbal communication is an important developmental milestone. It cannot be skipped over. Sometimes we have to climb down the developmental ladder before we can go up at full strength. The stronger a child’s non-verbal skills are, the better communicator they will become. Without a strong foundation, the developmental ladder that all children must climb will be very rickety.
The body also plays an important role in language development. Beyond having strong mouth muscles, there is a close correlation between the brain learning how to read the signals that the muscles are firing throughout the body and language production. Getting in some good body work with Cara Lindell at Kinetic Konnections (also a colleague at Communication Therapy + Friends) or a qualified Occupational Therapist (OTR/L), can sometimes be the key to getting the body in sync so children can develop their full language capacities.
I can’t urge families enough to not only get down on the floor and play, but to also get climbing on the jungle gym at the park. I often hear parents report back to me that their child is the most verbal when they are swinging, climbing, or going down the slide. When possible try to include some non-verbal gestures with your child at the playground.
The strategy of “playing dumb” can often help a child use their toolbox of communication skills to get their needs met. The goal of “playing dumb” is to encourage your child to expand their communication tools and the length of the time they interact with you. Here are some tips on how to “play dumb”:
* Therapists don’t just keep things in boxes, locked cabinets, or up high to keep our offices tidy. We try to get as much communication and problem-solving into our interactions with children as possible. We want to make them work for it! You can do this too! If your child needs help with an activity and is stuck using the same communication strategy they depend on to get your assistance or attention, try to expand the interaction and support their use of non-verbal communication and reading cues by:
1. Slowing down and being patient so that your child can read your cues, process the information, and respond;
2. Exaggerating all of your facial expressions and gestures, e.g., making a puzzled face and shrugging your shoulders;
3. Not responding right away until he/she is pointing, pulling you over to the activity, or uttering some words (using at least one means of communication that is different from his/her fallback methods);
4. Going up the slide or getting into the swing yourself and seeing if your child will communicate that you are doing the wrong thing. This will often elicit a lot of laughter!
5. Saying “Hmmm . . .I don’t know what you want right now…”
If your child seems close to a “meltdown” due to frustration, try saying softly, “I know you are trying to tell me what you want. You are working so hard. Let me try to help you,” and try giving two choices to see if your child will point to one of them.
A fun snack/dinner time non-verbal activity: At your next meal or snack time try practicing your family’s non-verbal communication skills by asking for a glass of water, requesting others to pass a favorite food around, or playing a simple game of “Go Fish”. Try expressing your disappointment or excitement without words (think: miming) and see how far you get. Remember to have fun and laugh as you go along. Your child will also see that she/he is not the only one who is frustrated when they are not being understood. It is challenging, but it will help your child learn how to read non-verbal cues that she/he will need on the playground and in the classroom.
More about Chicago PLAY Project:
Tamara Kaldor has extensive experience working with the DIR®/Floortime™ therapy model and supporting families and educators as they use the model successfully at home and in inclusive school programs. In addition, Tamara advocates with families for children in school and community programs. She is the only licensed provider in Chicago of The P.L.A.Y. Project, an effective, affordable, and evidence-based intervention for children with autism and other developmental delays, based on the wonderful DIR®/Floortime™ model developed Dr. Stanley Greenspan.
Parents play an important role in the DIR/Floortime model. For any therapy model to be truly effective, it must be intensive. The National Academy of Sciences recommends at least of 25 hours of intensive intervention per week for children diagnosed with autism and other significant developmental delays. However, for many families this is just too expensive and can seem overwhelming to do themselves. The P.L.A.Y. Project specializes in coaching parents, sitters, and other team members to be a child’s play partner in their most natural environment, home, and move a child up the developmental ladder.