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Collection: Early Childhood

purple arrowChapter 7: Developing Communication Abilities


REFERENCE: Reinhartsen, D., & Pierce, P. (no date). Developing Communication Abilities. In P. Pierce, (ed.). Baby Power: A Guide For Families For Using Assistive Technology With Their Infants and Toddlers. Chapel Hill, NC: The Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It is reprinted here with permission of the editor.

Description of chapter:

The authors discuss various means of communication in young children and the role communication plays in everyday learning. For children with cognitive and/or physical disabilities, however, the communication process may be far more challenging and alternative methods of instruction must be explored. The authors stress the importance of assistive technology and early intervention tools in the development of communication skills.

Introduction
Nuts and Bolts
Great Strategies To Try
Intervention
Assessment
Sample Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) Goals
Next Steps (Transition Issues)
Resources

CHAPTER AUTHOR(S): Baby Power is a collaborative project of The Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies (CLDS), CB# 8135, 730 Airport Road, Suite 200, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-8135 and The Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning (CDL), CB# 7255, BSRC, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-7255.

Patsy Pierce, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Early Childhood Special Education and Literacy from UNC-CH. Patsy has been a speech-language pathologist working with children with severe speech and physical impairments for the past 11 years. She was the Associate Director for Education at the CLDS, UNC-CH.

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Introduction

Communication is a life long learning process beginning at birth. We communicate in many different ways like listening, speaking, gesturing, reading, and writing. Communication abilities help children to learn, form social relationships, express feelings, and participate in everyday activities. Some children, due to cognitive and/or physical impairments, may have difficulty expressing themselves clearly or understanding what is being said to them. For those children, assistive technology can help to develop communication abilities, overcome communication problems, and provide a link between them and their daily life experiences.

Nuts and Bolts

  1. Communication begins in the womb. Even before a child is born, he or she communicates. A baby's kicking, rolling, hiccuping - all of these movements communicate something to the mother. The baby may be saying, "Mom, the food you ate was too spicy," or "You've been too busy, please slow down," or maybe the baby simply needs a change of position. Immediately after birth parents listen for a cry to let them know that their baby is breathing. Families watch their baby's facial expressions, feel his or her movements, and listen to his or her sounds. From birth babies constantly send signals. Through their eyes, ears, and touch they receive our responses to their early communicative signals.

  2. Early communication signals include movement and sound. As soon as they are born, babies communicate feelings of displeasure by crying or by physically turning away from something they don't like. Some babies will communicate feelings of displeasure through hiccuping, yawning, stretching out their arms, holding out their hands with fingers apart, placing a hand over the eyes, grimacing, or even falling asleep. All of these actions are signs that a baby may want something or may be stressed because of the things that are happening around him.

  3. Sometimes baby's early communication signals are hard to recognize. Some parents and other caregivers respond to their baby's signals with ease. Other parents or caregivers may need assistance in learning how to read their child's communication cues. Sometimes it is difficult to read a baby's early communication signals because of his or her physical or motor difficulties. Some children are born with conditions such as Down Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy which may place them at risk for having difficulty communicating their early messages. Their physical limitations may prevent them from turning away, opening their fingers, sucking their thumb, or yawning, all indications of possible pleasure or displeasure. Sometimes these babies or babies who are sick, sleepy, or who were born prematurely send very subtle and inconsistent communication signals. This inconsistency may make it difficult to figure out what the baby may need. When these children are not able to send their messages accurately, their communication partners may be unable to clearly read their cues. Parents and other caregivers consequently may not be able to respond to the baby's needs. When a baby's or young child's communication signals are not understood, his needs may go unmet. Because of this communication breakdown, he or she may not learn how to communicate like other children who are sending more clear and consistent signals.

  4. Read, Recognize, and Respond to early communication signals. All of a baby's caregivers must learn to RECOGNIZE communication signals, READ (interpret) them appropriately, and RESPOND to these communication signals as quickly and as consistently as possible. These three R's of early communication development help a baby learn that he or she can have an affect on the world. When a parent is able to recognize, read, and respond to early communication signals by changing the child's surroundings, feeding the child, holding the child, and/or swaddling the child, parents gain a feeling of self worth by having met the child's needs. The child is also learning to become an effective communicator by gaining attention and getting his needs met.

  5. Early signals can develop into spoken words. Children's early communication signals consist of bodily movements, facial expressions, gestures, cries and coos. These early signals eventually become speech-like sounds, then words, then sentences. Children develop these more adult-like and more easily recognized ways of communicating through exploring their environment, through hearing and seeing models (other people talking), through turn-taking in games, play, and talking, and by practicing. Usually by a child's first birthday, he or she may say a few clearly understood words. Most children begin putting words together around their second birthday. Children develop speech, however, at different rates. Communication development involving listening, speaking, gesturing, reading, and writing continues throughout life and requires access to all aspects of the child's world.

  6. Assistive technology is an option to help young children communicate. Help for children who are at risk for difficulty in developing, sending, and receiving early communication signals and for their caregivers is available through the use of assistive technology. Assistive technology includes a wide range of low and high technology options. One example of a low or no technology option to facilitate communication is keeping an accurate log of an infant's cues and their meanings to be shared by all caregivers. Using a little more technology, the harder to recognize and read signals may be seen by videotaping babies interacting with their caregivers. The caregivers can look at the videotapes together and with professionals who work with infants and toddlers. As a team they can decide what the baby's behaviors mean and how to respond to these early signals.

Other examples of assistive technology useful to aid communication development include adapting crib mobiles so they may be controlled by a switch placed in an infant's bootie. All the child has to do is move his or her foot to turn the mobile's music and movements on or off. This ability to control the outside world, even at this early age, helps babies to learn that their actions cause a reaction-the foundation for learning to communicate. There are also a wide variety of small devices which can "talk" for toddlers until they can say the words themselves. These devices are called augmentative communication systems and can sound like human or robotic voices. Having a way to control their world and to say what they are thinking, helps all children to develop their skills to the best of their abilities. These assistive technologies may be just the tools needed to help development occur.

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Great Strategies To Try

Intervention

If someone has recommended that your child receive early intervention services it may be helpful to keep the following communication guidelines in mind.

  1. Communication has no prerequisites. Children begin to communicate at birth so no time is too early to begin early intervention services.

  2. Communication involves at least two people. When a child is young the primary focus of intervention should be on the communication partners of the child which will probably include the parents, primary caregivers and siblings. If assistive technology is involved be sure to ask for individualized training on any piece of technology recommended for your child. This training should also include using the technology in as many activities (feeding, playing, using the bathroom) as possible.

  3. An adequate hearing environment is crucial. Before beginning early intervention services be sure that a child has an adequate hearing screening or evaluation. Also make sure that the child has a quiet place to play, eat, and do other activities so that he or she will be sure to hear parents and other caregivers talk with them.

  4. Using gestures, augmentative communication devices and any communication forms other than speech will not interfere with the development of spoken language. Everybody communicates in different ways. As previously mentioned, we communicate through gestures, facial expressions, body postures, speech, reading, writing, drawing, and music. Babies communicate without words (nonverbally) long before they learn to communicate through the use of sounds and words. Clinical studies report that other forms of communication will not keep young children with disabilities from learning to talk.

  5. Speech and sound making should be encouraged no matter how involved a child's physical, thinking (cognitive), or seeing, hearing, touching (sensory) abilities may be. The most rapid period of speech development occurs between birth and 7 years of age. During this time children have to learn to use about 100 different muscles to talk. Even if an augmentative communication system is recommended, developing and using speech sounds should still be encouraged. Speech sounds, even if not true words, can often be interpreted by listeners as communication signals.

    Ways to encourage sound production:
  6. Assistive technology should be incorporated into a child's already existing communication system of cooing, babbling, gesturing, and talking. Keep in mind that children already communicate in a variety of different ways such as the use of gestures, body posture, speech, and pointing to pictures and objects. When an augmentative communication device is recommended for a child it should not replace these other modes of communication but complement them. It is far better for a child to roll their eyes for "that's ridiculous" than to point to two pictures representing the same concept.

When designing an intervention program it is important to remember that communication intervention should not focus only on the child, but the partners with whom the child must communicate, the context or different situations in which a child must communicate, and the tasks the child needs to accomplish through communication.

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Assessment

When there are concerns about a child's communication abilities, it may be helpful for a team of professionals to work with the parent. This team should be made up of a speech-language pathologist and an occupational or physical therapist working with educators, medical personnel, a social worker and a psychologist to meet a child's developmental needs. A list of possible assessment teams in North Carolina are listed at the end of the chapter. The team can help the family to find out what may be causing communication problems and, more importantly, what to do to help the child gain communication skills. The following questions may be useful in guiding parents through the assessment process.

Before the assessment visit(s):

During the assessment visit(s):

After the assessment visit(s):

As previously mentioned, assistive communication technologies can help children have a way to talk and play so that they can better use the abilities they have. Assistive communication technologies also help children to further develop their skills. Examples of this type of assistive technology includes:

An example communication board is included at the end of this chapter. These Picture Communication Symbols (Mayer Johnson, Inc.) represent early words a child might say. These symbols can be used together or one at a time during play time.

Parents are partners in the assessment and intervention process. Parents are experts about their children. If we as professionals do our job well and we as "partners" share our expertise, hopefully through the assessment process we can select a communication system which includes speech, gestures, and any necessary assistive technology. This communication system will promote a child's independence to the fullest in all areas of daily life.

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Sample Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) Goals

  1. Joey will learn to control his mobile by kicking his legs and activating the switch placed in his bootie.
  2. Nikki will request more juice by handing her caregiver her cup.
  3. Crystal will learn to make choices by reaching for the toy she wants when presented with two different toys.

Next Steps (Transition Issues)

The primary goal of communication assessment and intervention is to facilitate the child's independence. As the child progresses through the different levels of communication, new levels and ways of communicating should be challenged. Children with physical, cognitive and/or speech impairments may eventually rely on a sophisticated augmentative communication device, a computer, sign language, a picture system or any combination of systems. The options are many. Parents have the right to explore all of these options before making purchase and intervention decisions.

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Resources

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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

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