Kim's blog, Activity Tailor, is filled with creative, parent-friendly ideas for encouraging communication. She kindly shared some here, too!
I’m from North Carolina, so the days aren’t yet crisp. It’s the waxy smell of new crayons and neat, colorful stacks of construction paper that are the harbingers of autumn.
One of the greatest assets of the return to school is the more structured child care environments. By reinforcing classroom activities at home, you can maximize progress towards speech and language goals, and have fun in the process! Even small changes to your morning routine can have a big impact on communication whether you are working on gestures, vocalizations or increasing vocabulary.
Wake them up with song. Whatever your music preference, sing a couple of lines (no need for the entire song) and slip in your child’s name or some other customization if you choose. Music and lyrics seem to draw out communication of all kinds, so stick with it! Kids do best with repetition and are more likely to try and repeat what they hear frequently and associate with a particular time. So beware, choose something that you can tolerate greeting you at 6am on Sunday! A sing-a-long might consist of rhythmic head or hand movements, any vocalization or some of the words themselves.
Let them choose food. Meals are a great opportunity to offer choices and encourage requests. You don’t want to run a diner, but you can hold up two cereal choices or two jelly choices and encourage verbal and/or gestural communication. Most kids love the feeling of control that making a selection offers. And it’s okay to offer the same two choices day in and out; the second choice doesn’t even need to be something that they like. “Grape (wiggle the jar) or strawberry (wiggle that jar)?” When they indicate their preference, reinforce it, “Grape! Today, it’s grape!”, even if you’re on a two-year streak of grape.
Create a theme. Thematic units offer the chance to build both receptive (what we understand) and expressive (what we say) vocabulary. Swing by your local party store, grocery store or discount retailer and pick up seasonal paper goods (or more eco-friendly washable choices). For back-to-school time, you might consider placing a toy bus as the table centerpiece, and going with bus-themed placemats, plates and napkins. Even just sticking with the color theme—yellow—is fine). With the above place setting I would count how many pumpkins we see. I’d repeat the vocabulary: “Toast is covering the pumpkin," "The pumpkin on the napkin is wiping your face," “Use the pumpkin straw.” Once you are on the lookout for seasonal themes, you’ll see possibilities everywhere; grandparents often seem particularly keen to assist in this area. Have your child’s teacher or daycare provider give you their classroom themes a few weeks in advance so you can match vocabulary. Popular fall themes include apples, leaves, pumpkins, and turkeys.
Let kids style themselves. Getting dressed is another opportunity for making choices, but, again, rather than offering the entire closet simply hold up two options, “Red or blue?” As with breakfast selections, reinforce any verbal or gestural communication. “Red for today! Our fifth day of red!” If you are particularly inspired by seasonal themes, you can add appropriate socks or accessories such as a necklace or pin. This has the added benefit that others—cashiers, other children—will often comment on, using target vocabulary throughout the day: "Oooh, honey, I like your apple necklace!”
Pack it up! Here’s a chance to repeat, repeat, repeat each and every school day. “Open!” as you zip open the backpack. “In!” as you insert the folder. “In!” as you put in lunch. “In!” for all the other items that need to be delivered to school. “Close!” as you or your child zip it shut. Pair your words/voice to the action and encourage your child to imitate either the action or the vocalization. The long “o” of “open” and the short “i” of “in” would be great approximations of the words and give you two contrasting sounds and mouth movements to work on.
Do a daily debrief. Whether you pick your child up at school or greet them later in the evening, pull something concrete from their folder, such as a painting or drawing, with a “Wow! This looked like fun!” For a non-verbal child, you might have them point to an item on the page, hold their hand up to a handprint or add your own comment, “I see a lot of purple on this!” By reviewing activities that happened that day, you will help reinforce the concepts addressed. Having an actual item in hand will also encourage more spontaneous language from a verbal child then the more abstract “Did you have a good day?” and provides you with context if clarity of speech is an issue.
Children adore traditions and find comfort in rituals, so while you might feel slightly mad repeating the same tasks and dialogue, this is one of the best ways to increase communication.
Kim is a member of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), which credentials audiologists, speech-pathologists, and speech, language and hearing scientists here and internationally and has more than 15000 members.
Image: Emerson Radio Hot Wheels boombox