It is imperative that both parents and professionals take the time to make sure our children understand the messages we convey. This is particularly important when it comes to interacting with children with special needs. Simply repeating the message or saying it louder is completely ineffective. Whenever I encounter this approach, I think back to early on in my career, when I was chatting with the parent of child who was profoundly deaf. She was complaining about her son's swim instructor, who did not know sign language, and so had taken to screaming at her son as a form of communication and instruction in the water. No matter how much she screams, he's not going to hear her, she told me, shaking her head in exasperation. She's just going to lose her voice.
Rather than the loudest-is-best approach, we need to understand why our message is unclear and use better methods to go about helping our children understand. When that breakdown does occur, and it inevitably will, I implore you to consider using The Three S's. Yes, my friends: Simplify, Shorten and Show!
Simplify the vocabulary
Shorten the length of sentences
Show your meaning in gestures
When used consistently, you will see that communication will begin to improve.
Below are some examples of problems that may arise and how they might best be addressed at home, in school and in everyday life.
Problem: The language being used is too complicated.
When working with elementary and middle school children with special needs, I'll generally present an activity or lesson and review every vocabulary term I suspect is unfamiliar before getting into the actual topic at hand. For example, even if the group had previously worked on synonyms, perhaps they were unsure of what the word "locate" meant in the direction "locate the synonyms in the picture below." I take nothing for granted and encourage you to do the same. Oftentimes, homework assignments go unfinished and tasks are left incomplete because the vocabulary in the directions is not clear. We want to encourage our children to ask questions and seek clarification if they do not understand, but we cannot assume that they will take the initiative to do so.
Instead of my using the word "locate," I can use words like "touch" or "point to." Either of those options is not only likely to be more familiar, but also connects a physical action to the task, engaging the child's mind and body in the learning process. Better!
Problem: The message is too long.
Often, we try to convey a message that has multiple steps such as, "Don't play video games with your brother until after you finish all your math work. And don't forget to feed Sparky. The new bag of food is under the sink behind the detergent next to the garbage can." Wow! That's a hefty amount of information for three sentences, chock full of negatives. If it weren't written down in front of you, would you be able to recall all of that? What are you supposed to do first? Where is the dog food?
While the actions given in these directions may be familiar to the child (he knows how to give Sparky his food and do his math homework), the sequence of the directions may not be. The prepositional words such as under and behind and temporal words such as after may also be confusing.
Solution: Shorten (and sweeten).
In the above case, a helpful fix would be to make a short list of tasks for the child to complete upon his arrival home. (e.g., 1. Feed Sparky 2. Have a snack 3. Do ALL your math work 4. Play). Remember, your message should be positive (or neutral), direct and uncluttered. Imagine the way you would send a quick text message to your friend, leaving out all of the unnecessary "filler" words. Try and apply that same technique when communicating with your special needs child.
Problem: There is no context.
You are standing in the kitchen, wrist deep in a bowl of ooey, gooey cookie dough. You notice it is almost 3 p.m. and your favorite show is about to come on, so you turn to your child and say, "Can you please get me the remote?" She is somewhat familiar with the word, but isn't really sure what it is. Nor does she have the expressive vocabulary to ask you to explain it in more detail. She observes the situation, you with your hands in the dough, and thinks that you need something from the kitchen. Your hands are dirty. You must mean a type of cleaning item. She hands you a dishrag. Communication failure.
Communication is a spectacular thing. It involves all our senses, our emotions, our posture, our gestures and our awareness of others and self. Humans have the unique ability to show our meaning when the words simply don't cut it. When you suddenly realize that your daughter doesn't understand that you are asking for the remote, you may get flustered or frustrated. You may find it cute or funny. Whatever the reaction, it is the perfect opportunity to jump on showing as a teaching experience. You wash your hands, walk over to that remote, pick it up and bring it to your little girl. Together, you can hold the remote, press the buttons, turn on the TV and turn off the TV. "Remote," you say, pointing to the remote as you say it. Make it fun! Put the remote on your head. Put the remote on your nose. Remote! Remote!
These techniques are not stand alone, nor should they be reserved for special circumstances. Try instead to incorporate The Three S's into your everyday routine with your child.