5 Tips for Working With Students With Communication Difficulties

This blog was written by Leanne Fisher, a Speech and Language Pathologist at a specialist school for students 5-21 years.

Some things we often see in a number of children with special education needs are delays or differences in speech and language skills. This impacts their ability to communicate with teachers, peers, and their families. 

There are lots of specific resources and strategies to support educators who are working with these students, but in this blog, we’ll be talking about some basic strategies to encourage and allow students to communicate and understand the world around them!

1. Follow their lead

Look at how your student is currently communicating and what they are communicating about. We all prefer talking to people who talk about things that we’re interested in and who listen to us. This is the same for our students. Look out for what language they’re using, their non-verbal communication, and any favorite topics or special interests they like talking about. For example, when sharing a book together, position yourself face to face so you can see what your student is looking at and talk about this first before reading the text. 

Sometimes we can rush into an interaction with a student with a plan for what we want to talk about and miss an opportunity to talk about what they’re interested in. Once you know what your student is interested in, it may be your ‘secret weapon’ to motivate them to engage in other activities. If Harry Potter is your students’ jam, maybe instead of counting blocks you could count broomsticks! If they’re a Taylor Swift fan, why not include this topic in literacy e.g. writing a “things I love about Taylor” book.

 

2. Learn to wait… and wait

When communication partners pause and wait after giving an instruction, i.e. asking a question or commenting on something the student is interested in, they give that student time to process what was said and form a response. By waiting and looking expectantly towards the student, we’re also giving them a cue to let them know it’s their turn. 

For someone who loves talking and feels uncomfortable with silence, this can be really hard to remember. To help, you could count to 10 in your head (remember to finger tap on your leg so you don’t count too fast). Each student will need a different wait time so get to know how long a student will need once you start practicing. You’ll be amazed what a student can do or say once we give them a bit more time! Waiting also gives our students a chance to problem solve and figure things out for themselves, which is also a bonus for their independence.

 

3. Visuals are your BFF

Visuals are a great tool to support understanding, processing, and engagement. For our students, visuals are a great way to prepare them for what is happening and to help them get their message across. Visuals can be pictures, symbols, written words, or signs. These can be used alongside verbal language as they can be more concrete – which is especially good for students who may have trouble with understanding or remembering multiple steps in a row. Visuals can come in a variety of forms. 

These could include:

  • Single visuals on a keyring that match typical classroom instructions, e.g. sit down, mat time, get your lunchbox, and then boards to help with transitions between activities.
  • Visual schedules that go through steps of routines, e.g. a step-by-step unpacking bag sequence.
  • Visual timetables that show a student what is happening across the day, e.g. morning meeting, walk, reading, brain break, morning tea.
  • Feeling charts

Don’t forget, a lot of these visuals can be helpful for a range of students, not just those who have Special Education needs! Also, even when you think your student doesn’t need visuals anymore, don’t get rid of them. For some of our students, visuals can be really useful on days where there might be a lot of change or disruptions and they’re feeling anxious. Imagine not having your planner or calendar available (feel those heart palpitations starting!!).

 

4. Model “one more step”

Once you know how your student is currently communicating and understanding language, simplify your own language to match their level and “one step ahead”. This means if your students are using mostly gestures to communicate, we’re going to model language at the next step of 1-2 keywords. If our students are using single words, we’re going to model using 2-3 keyword sentences. For students who are beginning to use short sentences with incorrect grammar, we can model a step ahead by repeating back their sentence with one more word added or with correct grammar. 

When we use this strategy, it lets the student know that we hear them and what they’ve said is important, but also shows them what we’re trying to develop next. There’s no pressure on the student to repeat what we have said back to them; keep it fun and simple and try not to disrupt the flow of the conversation too much.

 

5. Simplify your questions

Often we fall into the trap of asking questions of our students because questions let us lead the conversation and require a specific response. In general, questions are a great strategy for seeing what students know and expanding on their learning. Unfortunately, most questions we use with our Special Education students are testing questions that often only require a 1-2 word answer, even if our students have more language than that. What this means is that our students get really good at responding to our questions rather than asking their own. 

We also often ask questions we know the answer to, which, if you put yourself in the student’s shoes, can be really frustrating: “I get it, Miss, we both know that is a green tree, can we talk about something else now?” 

Instead, try and balance your questions with comments. Comments are statements about what we see, how we feel, what we like, what we think. Comments are a great way for us to model a variety of words which is important for vocabulary development. Try to use a mix of nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, and core words. Your student might need to get used to you using comments rather than questions, but once they do, you’ll hopefully see them using more comments in their language as well.

Remember you’re not alone! Most of these students will (hopefully) have a Speech and Language Pathologist involved. Speech and Language Pathologists are experts in the area of communication, and you and your team are an expert when it comes to your student – a match made in heaven! They’re able to assess where a student is, collaborate with the family and teaching team, and provide support to everyone who communicates with your students.

Even when SLPs come onboard, remember, the best people to support your students’ communication are the people who interact with them every day – you, your students, and the families. You have the power!

 

 

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