Teaching When You’re Not a Teacher: Meltdowns

Teaching Special Needs Meltdowns

Does this post need more of a title?

Children can have irrational reactions to just about anything.

I think I’d be getting your hopes up if I said that I could teach you how to keep kids from having meltdowns.

I’m not some mystical child-whisperer. 

However, I can teach you some strategies for working through meltdowns when you a) don’t know the child super well, and/or b)you are in a small group setting and can’t devote 20 minutes to working through emotions.

Know the Child

This is where you have to do some leg work by talking to the child’s parents and, possibly, some trial-and-error.

  1. Does the child crave contact (cuddles, sitting on lap, etc.), or do they want to be left alone when they are upset?

It’s fascinating to me that children that have the same autism diagnosis can respond to touch in completely different ways. Some seek it, some abhore it, and others try to push you away but they actually do want physical contact.

*I think it goes without saying that if a particular child does respond well to physical contact, you need to talk to the parents and find out what they do and what they are comfortable with. *

2) Is the child able to be distracted from big feelings? If so, what does the trick?

This may be a phrase, it may be an activity (like coloring), or it may be something sensory like a squishy ball, a beloved stuffed animal, etc.

Just keep this info in your back pocket. You never know when you might need it.

3) Are there any triggers to avoid and/or things I need to know?

Some children may have fears or anxieties about everyday things and events we don’t even think about. Think bees (every time they are in grass), or electricity, or plumbing. Or there may be stressors at home such as divorce or a new sibling that can most definitely affect their behavior.

Taking a few minutes to talk to a child’s parents can make a world of difference and avoid unnecessary, unpleasant situations. Plus, it shows the parents that you care. 

Give Choices

When a child is melting down and you really don’t have the time or space to let them cry, or talk about it, etc., you can give a child choices.

I recommend only two choices, since his/her decision-making skills will undoubtedly diminish during these big feelings.

The choices need to encourage positive behavior without rewarding negative behavior.

Let me say that again: The choices need to encourage positive behavior without rewarding negative behavior. 

Rather than offer bribes of treats or special privileges if they calm down, offer them choices for how they calm down.

For the youngest kids, I use the “power of 5” strategies.

Yes, I made that up all by myself. So don’t google it, it’ll just lead you right back here. 

The “power of 5” strategies are:

  1. take 5 big breaths
  2. Take a 5-minute cool-off (basically a time-out but it’s not a punishment, it’s an opportunity)
  3. Count to 5 (or 10 or 15, depending on the child’s abilities)

Obviously, you can adjust these as necessary.

But the point is you are offering choices that allow them to calm down and re-enter the situation/group without rewarding the meltdown.

Be Gentle but Firm

It is completely acceptable to validate a child’s feelings, even mid-meltdown.

Technically, it goes beyond acceptable and I fully encourage it. 

I think it can even be harmful to dismiss a child’s emotions, however irrational they may appear to you.

When a child is having a meltdown, squat/sit down so you are eye-level with them, and say:

“I can tell you are mad (or sad, or frustrated, etc.). It is no fun to be mad. Let’s choose a way to feel happy again. You can choose _____ or _______.”

Personally, when in a small group situation, or one where time is limited, I do not acknowledge why they are feeling so upset. That often causes a resurgence of crying and sobbing- not exactly what you want. If you feel a discussion is in order, you can mention it to the parents or talk about it with the child at a later time (when they are calm).

Being gentle but firm is a good balance. You are not a pushover, but you also are not “laying down the law.” You show you understand why a child is upset, but offer healthy ways to deal with those emotions.

So there you have it! I hope this series has encouraged those of you who find yourselves teaching or interacting with children.

Final note: If you would like more posts about dealing with emotions, check them out here and here and here.

Do you have any questions or comments for dealing with meltdowns? I would love to hear them!



Teaching When You’re Not a Teacher: Promoting Engagement

Teaching SN part two

Hello again! Let’s jump right into part two of my series on effectively teaching special needs children.

So earlier this week we talked about how to set expectations with a child(ren).

I see that as the foundation of effective teaching.

Today we will build the walls.

That’s right- I’m talking about how to keep special needs children engaged.

I will start off by saying that it can be so tricky. 

Sometimes what works one day won’t work another day.

That’s why I like offering several suggestions-a toolbox, if you will- of ways to set up your interactions for success.

Give Him/Her a Job

My daughter Chicka Chicka has good days and bad days when it comes to listening and following directions.

But she takes the recycling out like a pro. 

And as I learned last week, she also excels at Magic Eraser-ing all the grubby doors.

Surprisingly, all the grubbiness is right at kid-level. Hmmmmmmm……

Kids love to be given jobs and it sets them up to receive praise. It doesn’t even have to be a crucial or involved job.

My favorite jobs when working with kids were ones that could also be used as leverage to encourage good behavior throughout the day/lesson.

Image result for pirates of the caribbean leverage


O, like you didn’t think of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Say you give a child the job of “light switch helper.” They get to turn on the lights when he/she/the group enters the room, and also turn it off when the room is vacated. You can remind them that they need to do xyz in order to be able to complete their job.

If it’s the right motivator, hopefully it will entice them to make a comment, or keep eyes on the teacher, or whatever you expect/want them to do (age- and ability-appropriate, of course).

Some other jobs include:

  • picture/book/”thing” holder
  • paper/crayon/scissor-passer-outer
  • line leader/caboose
  • prayer-sayer (if using this method in a religious setting)
  • teacher-bag-holder (assuming it doesn’t weigh 4.2 thousand pounds like my bag does)

Now, if you have other children in your home/group that will find it quite unfair that one child gets a job and they don’t, thank-you-very-much, I would randomly assign jobs to all the children. I think this is beneficial in that everyone gets a job, but it also teaches that not everyone gets the job they want every time.

Coping skills, people.

Reflective Listening

This is something I learned in college, and I luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurv it.

That r was in there on purpose. 

In your life, have you ever been listening to a teacher, worked up the courage to make a comment, and they just said, “Thank you,” and kept right on going with their lecture?

Did it make you feel good? Did it really encourage you to continue to make comments in future lessons? Did it lead to a good discussion?

Or did it mostly feel like you were in Professor Binns’ History of Magic class? 

Image result for harry potter fandom

When you use reflective listening, you validate a child’s comment, and then you integrate their comment into your next sentence. See here:

Child: I don’t think it’s okay to steal things. One time I saw someone steal a candy bar.

Adult: You are right. It is not okay to steal things. Now, if you did steal a candy bar, like Joey saw someone do, how would you fix the problem?

Obviously, not every comment a child makes is going to segway nicely into the message you are trying to get across. I can’t tell you how many random stories I have heard from children that were only slightly related to what we were talking about.

But do your best. At least validate their comment. After all, for some kids it takes a lot of courage to even say anything. It will also encourage them to keep making comments, thus keeping them engaged in the lesson.

Give the Answer in Your Question

As we’ve talked about quite a bit in this post, the key to promoting engagement in children (especially special needs children) is positive reinforcement and helping them feel successful.

This last idea is awesome for this because you give the answer to your question in your question. 

I know, I know, then what is the point in asking the question?

*allow me to stand on my soapbox*

Sometimes I feel we focus too much on cramming information into children’s heads. We focus on trying to teach them everything we know and want them to know.

But, more important than that, I think there needs to be a focus on learning how to learn. This is especially true for children with developmental delays/differences such as autism.

Now, I’m not talking about how to teach kids to score well on standardized tests.

Children need to learn how to think for themselves, how to be confident in academic and social settings, and how to handle the problems that will come in life.

But for all of that to happen, they need to have confidence in the little things.

*tuck soapbox into the closet for another day*

So how does this look? Here’s an example.

(adult is holding up a picture of a child crying over a broken toy.)

Adult: This child is crying. Her toy broke. Why is the child crying?

Child: Her toy broke.

Yes, it really is that easy.

And when a child gives you the right answer, give praise and encouragement to keep giving answers. See here for my post on giving effective praise.

Brain Break

This one is sort of a bonus tip, so I’ll just touch on it.

A brain break is exactly that- a set time or activity where a child/children disengage and do something completely different for a few minutes.

This especially helps children with attention span difficulties and sensory children who have trouble sitting still for long periods of time.

With younger children, this can be something as simple and silly as a 1-minute wiggle-fest or singing a “moving” song- Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, If You’re Happy and You Know It, etc.

With older children it may be playing a quick game. I will be doing a post soon on the “Stick Game” in all its simple, beautiful glory. The Hungry, Hungry Hippos app is free and also works as a great “brain break.” There are also several group games that are fast that we all remember from childhood- Miss Mary Mack, the Cup Game, Ink-a-Bink-a-Bottle-of-Ink, etc.

It is important to use brain breaks when you first see signs of fatigue and fidgety-ness. It is much better to take 2 minutes and play a silly game than take 10 minutes trying to deal with a meltdown.


So there you have it. Four ideas that you can use to help keep children of all abilities engaged. I wanted to offer up these ideas as opposed to a token system (let’s call it what it is, bribery), because I feel that while that can be a good place to start, we ultimately want a child to feel intrinsically motivated to participate and pay attention in class.

Please email or comment with questions you may have. I want to be as helpful as possible!
Now, brace yourselves: Friday I will be talking about methods to deal with meltdowns. You know they will happen.

How to Teach with Scaffolding


Happy Wednesday! Even though school has been out for a few weeks here, and I’ve already gone on one vacation, I still feel like my 8-year old self on the last day of school.

And, call me Hermoine Granger, I wanted to KEEP LEARNING during the summer.

My mom would sign me up for summer school (back when you didn’t have to “need” summer school to attend), the summer reading program at the library, swimming lessons…basically everything you could possibly sign a child up for in my small town, she did.

So today’s speech-therapy technique is inspired by my love of learning. I want to teach parents how to use the “I Do, We Do, You Do” method of teaching.

Also known as scaffolding.

Why does this work so well?

Think of a building under construction. There is all the scaffolding on the side of the building, supporting the structure and allowing the workers to reach all areas of the building. As the building’s structure gets stronger and more complete, the scaffolding is removed little by little, until the building is complete and doesn’t need additional support.

Now apply that to a child learning something new. They are going to need a lot of support before they “get” it. They are going to need you to show them what to do and to practice it with you before they are ready to try it on their own. Depending on the child’s abilities and their interest level, they will need more or less scaffolding. And yes, it may be exhausting and frustrating, but when it transitions from completely dependent to completely independent, you swell with pride.

So here is what you do:

I Do: Model what you want the child to do or say. 

We Do: You have your child and yourself do or say the modeled behavior.

You Do: The child does it all by his or her self.

Okay, that is the super-simplified version of what you do.

Here’s how it usually goes: 

Scene: You want to teach your child how to put stuff in a bin.

I Do: You get your child’s attention. You show him the bin and then the toy. You physically put the toy in the bin. You verbalize, “Put in.” You take the toy back out and do/say it again. And again. 

We Do: Give the toy to your child. Putting your hand over his, put the toy in the bin, once again saying, “Put in.” Take it back out and do it again. 

You Do: Let your child handle the toy by himself. Give the direction, “Put in.” Go back to step 2 after two failed independent attempts and then let him try again. Shower him with praises when he does it independently. 

See how you gently remove the amount of support? It’s slow enough that your child won’t feel abandoned and/or overwhelmed, but quick enough that you can (hopefully) maintain his attention to the task. 

You can apply this to teaching in all aspects of your child’s life. Just remember to utilize patience, persistence, and encouragement. It will pay off. I’m yet to meet a kid that didn’t respond to this method of teaching.

Please try this method of scaffolding, and let me know how it goes!

How to Teach the Two Signs That’ll Change Your Life

sign cover final

So today I was reminiscing about when Boom Boom was about 9 months old, and he hit that fantastic stage where he wanted to eat human food but didn’t really know how to communicate. Hence, the huge chocolate cake mess in the cover picture.

And we all know what that leads to.

Food on the floor. Food in the hair. That second helping that goes untouched. Basically, food struggles.

That was when I decided to teach Boom Boom two basic signs: “all done” and “more.”

And you know what? It changed both our lives.

True, food still ends up on the floor. I’m expecting that to happen until my children go off to college. If it stops before that, well then, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

But these two signs allow your child to communicate wants/needs, and they also allow you to communicate with your child (as in, no more food, or asking if they want more)

The key to teaching these signs is lots of modeling, immediate rewards, and not taking no for an answer.


Modeling is fancy-speak for doing what you want your child to do. In the beginning, you also have to model the reaction/reward for the sign.

So these two signs are super easy.

“All done” looks like jazz hands. You hold your hands up, and shake them.






To make the “more” sign, you make a “lobster claw” and have the fingertips of your two hands touch.








I recommend teaching “all done” first. Motor-wise, it is easier to do, and there are more acceptable variations. For instance, my son usually just flails his arms, but I know what he’s trying to say.

Okay, so here’s what you do:

Wait until your mom (or dad)- sense kicks in and you know your child is done eating.

Make the sign yourself, and ask your child, “All done?”

Repeat. And repeat. And repeat. (lots of modeling, remember?)

If your child doesn’t try to mimic you, grab his hands and help him make the motion, always saying “all done.”

Now, let go of his hands and model it one more time.

If your child makes ANY movement, you give lots of praise and immediately take the food away.

Repeat and repeat and repeat. Every meal, every situation involving food.

If your child still doesn’t do it, once again, put his hands in yours and help him make the sign. Then immediately fulfill the “request.”

Immediate Rewards

It is SO important that you immediately respond to your child’s attempts to sign. It trains a Pavlovian response, and since you are most likely dealing with a very young child, he/she needs that immediate response to pair the cause-and-effect of the sign.

If you don’t know who Pavlov is, let me give you a quick rundown:

Pavlov conducted an experiment with dogs where he would ring a bell and then give the dogs a treat. Eventually the dogs associated the sound of the bell with getting a treat.

That’s the essence of what we’re going for here.

Make the sign, something desired happens.

Don’t Take No for an Answer

Kids are sneaky. And kids are lazy.

Now, before I am tarred and feathered, let me explain.

If you don’t make a child request something, they will use the smallest amount of effort required to get what they want. 

It’s just human nature. I, for one, will only do the minimum amount of cleaning that I have to to make my house acceptable. (Ya….that super-detailed spring cleaning list I made two months ago? Buried somewhere on my kitchen fridge).

So it is important to be consistent. Don’t have your child tell you “all done” for breakfast and then just clear his plate automatically for lunch (no matter how close you are to naptime). Remember, you are not just teaching this sign; you are teaching your child that communication is necessary and important. 

However, you do have leeway in terms of what you will accept as a sign. I accept any flailing of the hands/arms for “all done”; I accept “more” when Boom Boom moves his hands closer together.

You Can Do It!

Teaching nonverbal children signs is step one in speech therapy world. But I also know that some parents are hesitant to teach sign, fearful that it will impede verbal language development.

This theory has yet to be proven by any study done on the subject.

You could teach your child several signs- you could expand into “help,” “food,” “drink,” etc., and it still wouldn’t impede their verbal language development. If anything, it will help it because (as I wrote in bold earlier), you are teaching your child a)how to learn to communicate, and b)that communication is necessary and important.

So please, give sign a try with your little learners! You may find, like me, that those two basic signs allow for a WHOLE lot of communication!

Don’t Ask Questions! A Technique to Expand Conversation

dont ask questions

Now, I know what you’re thinking.

Woman, you just did a whole series on questions.

Buuuuuuuuuuut…today I want to share yet another trick for your toolbox.

Did you know it’s possible to get more conversation out of kids by not asking questions?

Because I didn’t. Not until grad school.

The secret here is to not ask questions, but only comment on what your child is doing. 

In my humble opinion, this is so effective because it puts the child in charge of the conversation (even though you still really are in charge of the conversation). This, in turn, makes them feel validated and confident, and they want to share more information with you.

It also teaches them about longer responses. Asking questions, you run the risk of only getting one-word answers. If you have an open-ended comment, typically a one-word answer isn’t going to cut it.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of how a conversation can go.

Scene: Your child is playing with Duplos.

Parent: What are you doing?

Child: Playing with Duplos?

Parent: Where are they?

Child: The house.

Parent: What are they doing in the house?

Child:  Playing.

See how it sorta feels like 20 Questions? And you’re not exactly getting stellar responses.

Let’s run this scenario again, but with the parent NOT asking questions.

Parent: Ooooh! Duplos! I want to play!

Child: Okay! Here’s one guy for you.

Parent: Thank you! Let’s see, you’ve built a great house, but I don’t know where my guy is supposed to live.

Child: O we need to build one.

Parent: I might need your help. I want a house my guy can have his friends over.

Child: Let’s build a big, big house! They can all play in it!

See how much better the conversation flowed? And the parent still got all the information they wanted, plus some!

Now, obviously, this technique is not going to be as effective for toddlers, or those with only 1-2 word utterances. But you can still use the concept of commenting to identify words in play. In fact, I recommend it since it keeps things simple and clear for very young children.

You will be surprised how difficult this strategy is. Asking questions is so ingrained in our minds as the only way to get information, especially from children. You have to actively remind yourself to not ask questions. Once you get used to this different approach, though, it becomes easier and the responses you get are much more satisfying.

So go ahead. I dare you. I double-dog dare you. Try NOT asking questions, and see what responses you get!

I would love to hear from my readers, so please comment down below on how this went for you!

Wh-Questions: The When, Why, and How

wh questions when why how

Aaaaaaah. The when, why, and how questions.

Otherwise known as “the intangibles.”

I’m going to break these up, because I approach each one differently.


For when questions, you first have to teach the concept of time. No, not the whole thing. But you do need to pick 3-6 different “time” words you want your child to learn first. Personally, I would teach “morning,” “noon,” “night,” for sure, and then I would also think about words like “before” and “after” or “first” and “then.” This will also help with teaching “how” questions, since they tend to be sequencing questions.

Now, I’m not gonna lie, I have an awesome activity to teach “when” questions. You will need:

  • 3 plates
  • pictures of undeniably breakfast, lunch, and dinner foods

You have your child pick a picture- this could be out of a box, out of a hat, or show two and have your child pick one. Then, you ask your child, “When do we eat ______?” Your child then answers morning, noon, or night. You then repeat their answer as a full sentence (“We eat pancakes in the morning!”), and they get to put the food on the correct plate.

People, I have done this with special needs preschoolers. It is awesome and they catch on quickly. Just remember a lot of modeling and a lot of praise.


Why is the BIG jump- where a child moves into logical thinking, empathy, and all the other goodies. For these types of questions, I would teach a “carrier phrase.” Or, in this case, a carrier word. Teach your child to answer “why” questions with “because…” Sometimes having that carrier word is enough to get them talking. There is always time to teach other responses later.

I would caution you to be mindful of asking “why” questions that are too vague. Practicing “why” questions should focus on everyday items, routines, and people. Think “Why do we brush our teeth?” or “Why do we eat lunch?” Giving your child something familiar to refer to helps a lot.

This is also a great question to sabotage. I know I talk a lot about sabotage, but kids seriously think that grown-ups saying the wrong thing is downright hilarious. So maybe say, “Why do we eat dinner in the morning?” Then, totally let your kids call you out on it.


When introducing how questions, I would stick with basic sequencing questions like, “How do you make lemonade?” or “How does the Three Little Pigs go?” The key here is that you have to ask about routines, stories, and tasks that have a specific sequence. For instance, if you don’t have a strict bedtime routine, it’s not really fair to ask your child about it.

There are tons of ideas on my Pinterest board for sequencing activities. Most of them have free printables and/or are paired with a story.

I am sure you will get sick of hearing this, but these are also perfect questions for SABOTAGE! Put the pictures in the wrong order, do steps in the wrong order, whatever. When else can you do something wrong on purpose?!?

I hope this has helped. Just remember that wh-questions are hard, and some are more abstract than others.

Please comment below if you try some of these strategies! Also, follow me on Pinterest and Twitter for ideas and updates!

How to Ask Questions to Get Answers

wh question series final

When I worked in the special needs preschool, I would say about 60-75% of my caseload had an answering wh-questions goal. I also added a wh-questions goal to lower-functioning students as soon as I thought it fell into their zone of proximal development (re: the fancy term for what they can do with assistance).

So why is answering wh-questions so important? I could rant about how the school system is flawed and only wants kids to able to answer standardized questions, but that’s simply not true. Everyone needs to be able to ask AND answer wh-questions in order to gain and process information in both academic and social settings.

So now to the inspiration for the above image. Have you ever felt like you go around and around with your child trying to get answers to basic questions? You ask “What did you do today at school?” and you get the dreaded “Uuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhh……,” or even better, you get one-word answers like “fine” or “okay” or “I don’t know” to any inquiry about their day.

It’s enough to drive any parent crazy!

Well today I want to explain the question hierarchy and ways to phrase your questions to get real answers and spark conversation with a child of any age or ability.

The question hierarchy has to do with the level of processing required for different types of questions. Trust me, it’s not as daunting as it sounds.

  • “What” questions are typically the easiest to process. They usually deal with the here and now, like “What are you doing?” (note: exasperated mom voice optional).
  • “Who” and ” Where” questions come next, only because they require the knowledge of what “who” and “where” means. Since they don’t have any tangible meaning, this has to be taught.
  • “When” questions are the next level up, since time is an abstract concept to many children. (If you’ve ever tried to get a child to school or church on time, you know what I mean!)
  • “Why” and “How” questions are the most difficult to process. “Why” questions usually require more of a thought process, and probably empathy or theory of mind to some degree. “How” questions typically require sequencing of steps.

Consider this hierarchy when asking your child questions. It may be that asking them “Why did you do that?” is too difficult, but they could answer “What were you trying to do?”

Next, two rules for getting answers!

One: Make your questions tangible.

Children do much better answering questions about the here and now. They also do better with visual cues. This makes reading a great opportunity for getting great answers. One of my personal favorites is the “No David!” series by David Shannon. Each page only has a few scolding words, but the pictures are vivid and obvious. It’s so easy to read the actual words and then follow-up with a question like, “What did David do?” Your child can look at the pictures for clues, rather than trying to solely rely on auditory recall.

Two: Make your questions specific.

Questions like, “What did you do today?” are just too broad. Most kids know you expect an answer, but they don’t know what answer you are looking for. Does Mom want to hear about lunch? or that new kid? or my art project? or the homework that was due today?

So take the guesswork out of the question. Rephrase it so they know exactly what you want to hear. ” Who did you play with today?” is much more specific and triggers better recall. It also creates a metaphorical springboard for a conversation. “Oh you played with Kate? She sits next to you for reading time, doesn’t she? What story did you guys read today?”

I also have a few side notes for conversations. First off, once you ask a question, wait for the answer! Go HERE to read a whole post on this. Second, sometimes not asking a question gets you a better response than asking incessant questions. In the above example, you could also say, “Oh you played with Kate? She seems like a good friend.” Then, pause and let your child tell you why Kate is so great (or not). I plan to have a post about this, but I think it’s worth mentioning here as well.

So there you go! Remember the question hierarchy, as well as making your questions tangible and specific! All my posts this week will have insight and activities for teaching your child to answer various wh-questions, so stay tuned!

How to Sabotage Play to Teach Problem-Solving Skills

sabotage final

So today I’ve been feeling sabotaged. I made myself a massive spring cleaning list, but for some reason my kids keep leaving toys on the floor, dropping crumbs under the table, and needing 2-3 clothing changes per day! So inconsiderate. Can’t they tell I can’t do the daily housework AND my spring cleaning? (Hence why things like scrubbing the baseboards and washing walls only happen once a year).

But that frustration inspired this post about sabotage in play. What I love about this concept is that it’s usually never your fault. You can purposefully sabotage play to teach problem-solving and/or communication skills to a child of any age or any ability.

It’s super simple, and I’ll give you three examples of play sabotage with different age groups

  1. For the under 3 crowd, this could be something as simple as blocking the effect in a cause-and-effect toy. Think car ramps, balls that spin down lanes, one of those pop-up toys, any sort of wind-up toy, anything like that. You could put another toy in the way, put your finger there, etc. You decide what communicative response you need from your child to remove the obstacle. This could be making eye contact, making any vocalizations, or asking for help (signing or verbalization). The trick with this age group is to not let your child get too frustrated or they will just give up. You  may need to model what you want your child to do.
  2. For the 4-6 crowd, the idea is something is missing. A puzzle piece, a special doll, a favorite dress-up, the ONLY car that works with a certain Hot Wheels set, etc. In this age group, you are aiming for your child to ask for help looking for it, and working through a thought process to find the missing item. This leads into a productive conversation of “Well, where did you see it last?” ” Where do you think it might be?”
  3. For the 7 and up crowd, I would use silly sabotage. At this age group, they will most likely notice you sneaking something, or they are cognitively high enough to solve the problem themselves. This is where you make a mistake. This could be reading a word wrong, building something wrong, labeling something incorrectly, etc. Totally ham it up when your child calls you on it. Then say something like, “Can you help me fix it?” or “I am so silly, what do you think I can do to fix it?”

Does this strategy make sense? It’s really fun to do and watch a child’s reaction. It is also a great life lesson, because things rarely go the way we plan them to, and children need to learn how to solve problems and adapt.

Give it a try, and please let me know how it goes!

Social Communication in School-Age Children


Expressive Language School Age

So my last post on expressive language disorders was geared towards more intentional, needs-based speech, and ended with spontaneous speech. But it doesn’t really end there, does it? As children grow, their communication needs expand from purely requesting and answering to social communication. A 2-year-old doesn’t necessarily need to know how to ask a friend to play, but a 7-year-old certainly does.

Teaching social communication is complicated, so I’m just going to start at the beginning. Children with autism and expressive language disorders need a basic framework of initiation, maintenance, and conclusion of social communication.

Initiation- the simplest way to teach a child to initiate a conversation is to teach a few key “scripts.” There are several ways to do this, but my personal favorite is to practice a simple starter phrase like, “I have an idea.” You can model this to your child in everyday interactions, practice with dolls in a dollhouse, puppets, basically anything that will expose your child to the phrase and motivate them. If you can tell that they want to say something but aren’t sure how, you can even give them a prompt like, “I can tell you have an idea.” Then when their eyes light up, make sure they say, ” I have an idea!” As the script becomes more ingrained, you can reduce the amount of support you give to have them say it. Eventually this will become an independent behavior, and you better be so excited about it!

Maintenance- Social maintenance is turn-taking. Children must learn the give-and-take of conversations. This can be particularly difficult for children with autism as they tend to focus on one subject, and lack the awareness of social norms. For me, I have found that playing simple games provide the basis for turn-taking. Board games like Candyland, or card games like Go Fish are great starting points. They have a fast turnover rate, and they are fun! It is also important to practice the nonverbal aspect of turn-taking: make sure to practice correct eye contact to indicate when it is time to take a turn. Children with autism and/or expressive language disorder often do not pick up on these nonverbal cues.

You can then start moving it into social situations. If your child initiates a conversation (“I have an idea!”), practice the turn-taking. Remind them to make eye contact. Once again, puppets, dollhouses, paper dolls/Barbies…anything that creates a controllable social situation is going to help practice this.

Teaching maintenance of a social communication is the optimal situation to practice SABOTAGE. I will have a post explaining this in more detail, but purposefully sabotaging a social communication with your child teaches them how to problem-solve before it happens in “real life.”

Finally, teach your child how to conclude a social communication. Once again, I would start with a few key scripts- even something like, ” That’s all I have to say,” or “I have to go” is a direct cue that the conversation is over.

If you need more help with this, I would strongly suggest looking into Social Stories. This is an official resource available to purchase, or you can also just make your own, either in book or video form.

Finally, I would like to link to a fellow SLP blogger, Shannon at Speechy Musings. She has fabulous materials on her blog. Go to her “Materials” link HERE, and then under “Expressive Language” and ” Pragmatics,” you will find lots of great printables! Most are under $5, and they look incredible.

I know this all sounds overwhelming. You just want your child to be able to share their thoughts. I get it, I really do. But this is something that is going to take time, and it’s progress will need to be measured by small victories, not giant leaps.

There are just about as many ways to work on social communication as there are aspects to communication. This little post barely scratches the surface. There is the emotional understanding aspect, the unwritten social rules, the problem-solving aspect, etc. I hope to touch on all of these, but please leave a comment below or email me if you are really struggling with a certain area.

Expressive Language Disorders in Young Children

Expressive Language Young Child

I had a request from my facebook page to talk about expressive language disorders. This is when a child’s speech sounds and receptive language is age-appropriate, but their expressive language is limited. Since there is a lot to talk about, I split this into two posts. This first one is for younger children, I’d say ages 2-6. Tomorrow’s post is targeted towards older children with more social concerns, ages 7 and up.

In general, there are two branches of expressive language disorders. The first is a language disorder, in which the child does not know when and how to use language. The second type is known as selective mutism. ASHA (The American Speech-Language and Hearing Association) defines selective mutism as below:

“Selective mutism (formerly known as elective mutism) usually happens during childhood. A child with selective mutism does not speak in certain situations, like at school, but speaks at other times, like at home or with friends. Selective mutism often starts before a child is 5 years old. It is usually first noticed when the child starts school.”

If you want to read the ASHA page on selective mutism, go here.

This is different from other expressive language disorders because there is a social anxiety component to it. The debate rages on whether selective mutism is a speech-therapy concern or requires a psychologically-based therapy. However, I personally feel that both therapies can work together to benefit a child.

It is clear to see that the first order of business is to have your child evaluated. If your child is diagnosed with a language disorder and qualifies for services, you will begin the process of developing and using an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or an IFSP for children under 3 (Individual Family Services Plan). Don’t worry, I am planning a mini-series that walks you through the IEP process.

But I know what you’re thinking- I came here to learn about things I can do at home! Well here they are:

1) First off, find out at which point your child’s expressive language is no longer functional. The basic heirachy of expressive language abilities in young children is listed below, from requiring the most support to the least support.

Immediate imitation- “Say car.”

Delayed imitation- “This is a car. What is this?”

Cloze procedure- This is a car and it has four ________.”

Identification-“What’s this?”

Answer non-“what” Questions- “Where is the car?”

Story Retell- “Tell me that car story.”

Spontaneous Speech- ” I wonder how cars work.” (wait for child to respond)

This gives you a good framework for what your child needs. For instance, if your child can answer delayed imitation questions without any problems, but can’t identify something on their own, then you know where to focus your energy. In this example, it wouldn’t make sense to work on story retell, as that is too far beyond your child’s current abilities to do independently.

You can quickly run through these questions with your child, or you can ask the SLP who evaluated your child where they started having trouble with this during the testing.

2) Once you have focused on your child’s current abilities, come up with fun activities that work on the next level of expressive language. This is known as the zone of proximal development, what your child can do with adult support. Working at this level is best because your child can make progress in a short amount of time.

There are so many great books, songs, and apps that work on these basic concepts. I would start there, since those three things are super engaging for children. Follow these links for great ideas on age-appropriate bookssongs, and apps. Asking wh-questions is another great way to work on several of these. You can do role-playing with puppets or dolls; you can purchase wh-question flashcards from companies like SuperDuper, or download questions like these. You can even get I-Spy or Where’s Waldo? books and ask questions about all the scenes and items in those.

To keep this post from becoming too long, I would just like to add that if you suspect your child has selective mutism, or if language and psychological testing confirm it, these strategies will need to be modified before they can be effective. I am not an expert on selective mutism, but there are great resources available online, such as selectivemutism.org and selectivemutismcenter.org.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post that talks more about prgamatics and social concerns with expressive language development.

What are your concerns about your child’s language development? Ask away in the comment section!