Promoting your child’s communication skills is the single most effective means of improving behaviors, play, and socialization. Children who can communicate their needs, wants, likes, and dislikes, are much less likely to cry, scream, or protest. While most parents recognize the value of promoting communication skills, many are unaware of the multitude of ways to shape these skills long before children use intelligible speech. Communication is so much more than the sounds and words we use. Coordinated eye gaze, facial expressions, gestures, and postures are all integral aspects of communication and lay the foundation for the vocal parts of communication that follow. Long before the use of words, children learn that they can influence others, share in experiences, and meet their needs through the use of sounds, expressions, and gestures.
To improve communication skills, begin by shaping the natural gestures that kids use and transforming them into communicative gestures. In order to work on this skill, begin an activity with your child that involves a motor component. For instance, offer them a desired object but hold it slightly out of reach so that your child has to extend their hand to grab for it. Alternatively, you could hold out a highly desired and a neutral or non-preferred item and wait for your child to reach for the one they want, or push away the one they don’t want. It is important to wait for the child to initiate communication in any shape or form (i.e. reaching, vocalizing, smiling, making eye contact with you, etc.), and to avoid guessing the child’s wants and rushing to fulfillment. As soon as you seen a communicative overture, such as a smile along with eye contact, treat it as if your child just told you exactly what they wanted, and give it to them along with an enthusiastic narration.
When my daughter was 8 months old, she would flap her arms up and down when excited; in a manner I have seen so many other babies do. We used to play a game where I would stand her in front of me on the bed, holding her under her arms. I would bounce her up and down twice and then wait. If she flapped her arms and looked at me with a smile, I cheerfully said “you want more!” and gave her a few more bounces. I would stop and wait for another communication from her and then excitedly verbalize “MORE” while giving her additional bounces. This game could go on long after my arms were tired from bouncing her. What she seemed to enjoy most about it, was not the bouncing itself, but the power of being able to communicate something to me that I subsequently responded to. I noticed that the laughter and excited flailing of her arms only occurred when we played the game of “communicating,” but not when I simply sat behind her and bounced her up and down with no feedback from her. Over time, the game shifted from her flailing her arms to my teaching her to bring her hands together, and eventually to signing “more.” Before long, she verbalized “more” as one of her first sets of words.
As we reinforce each instance of a child initiating communication, we are strengthening their understanding of the power of this communication to meet their needs. Waiting for a child to communicate a need, and suppressing the desire to rush in and give them exactly what we know they want, teaches them the fundamentals to get their needs met no matter where or with whom they are interacting.