The Toddler Years. Let's Talk.
By Laurie Harriman, MA CCC-SLP

There is so much that a child needs to learn in order to communicate effectively. We take for granted the little things that help us communicate every day because they come so naturally after years of practice. As parents, we spend every waking moment teaching our children. We teach them about manners, we teach them about strangers, we teach them about kindness, we literally spend all day teaching. Do we teach our kids how to talk? Absolutely! We do this so effortlessly that we most likely are unaware of our teachings.

Here are some examples of those everyday teachings: you wave to the bus driver, you blow a kiss to your child, you listen to someone tell a story, you talk about your day. Although speaking and comprehending seem second nature now, there was a time when these skills didn’t come so easily to us and we had to be taught how to do these things. Exposure is everything. If you had never seen anyone wave hello, you likely wouldn’t use this method as a way to greet people. If you didn’t know the meaning behind blowing a kiss, this gesture may look rather silly. Understanding and expression of spoken language takes knowledge of vocabulary, concepts and grammar (to name a few). All of the ways we communicate were processes we learned. Although our brains may be hard-wired for the development of language, without exposure we would have great difficulty developing these skills.

As adults we have mastered the process of communication, but how do we teach our children to be effective communicators? In my office, I like to take a multimodality approach. For example, if a child is a late talker, I will utilize a variety of techniques to help them learn to express themselves. We might use pictures, gestures, sign language and spoken words. In therapy, I am animated, use facial expressions and demonstrate a lot of communication through play. In my experience, children tend to catch on much more quickly when an assortment of methods are introduced.

The question then becomes, “how can you boost language skills at home as a parent?” You are likely practicing a number of techniques daily with your little ones without even knowing it. Just think about expanding what you are already doing. Your child reaches for a cup and you get it for her. You fulfilled her request because you knew exactly what she needed. We are always anticipating what our children may need and trying to stay one step ahead of them in order to meet their everyday needs. Instead, take a step back. Slow these exchanges down. Give your child models and demonstrations of both spoken language and gestures or signs before giving her what she wants. Your child reaches for the cup. You say, “cup please” and use the sign for cup. This is providing your child with some ways to communicate. Now she is being exposed to both the verbal output and sign language that represent that very object she was reaching for. Your child will soon be imitating you by either repeating the spoken language or by using the sign. Don’t be concerned if your child chooses to use sign language over spoken language --
sign language has actually been shown to promote spoken language and increase the speed at which it is acquired. As your child is learning to talk, I recommend using a variety of signs for basic needs (i.e. eat, drink, bed, bath) in combination with spoken language. Don’t feel like you have to take a formal sign language course. You can look up signs on YouTube or take out books at your local library. You will be amazed at how quickly your child picks up on these basic signs, and it can decrease frustration for your child if he/she is not yet using spoken words.

Another way to promote communication in our toddlers is something you are probably already doing: play with your child. I mean really play! Get down on the floor with them, crawl around like a puppy, hide under a blanket and play peek-a-boo, dance, sing and make up your own games. Play with dollhouses, farms, pots and pans and puppets. Just play. Play provides so much to a child. The best part about playing is there is no right or wrong way to do it. Play requires joint attention (where you and your child are both focusing on the same thing), which is vital in the development of communication skills. Not only are they getting your attention, but they are anticipating, imitating and interpreting.

Another way to boost language skills is to read to your child. Start as soon as they are born! Not only do books provide rich vocabulary, but they also promote listening skills, turn-taking, cause and effect, and introduce various concepts. These are all supportive of a great language base, which in turn promotes strong communication skills for your ?little one.

If you have concerns about your child’s speech or language development, don’t hesitate to talk with their pediatrician. Children all develop at their own pace, but a referral to a Speech-Language Pathologist for an evaluation may be warranted. Below I have posted some resources on developmental milestones that are specific to speech and language development.

Laurie Harriman, MA CCC-SLP is a nationally certified Speech-Language Pathologist and the owner of The Maine Chatterbox, LLC located in the heart of Gorham, Maine. She has over 10 years of experience with all ages, but her true passion is working with the pediatric population. You can find The Maine Chatterbox on Facebook!