Many children I work with are very confident communicators even though their speech is not clear or they struggle to get across what they want to say. This is great to see and helps to reduce their frustration. For some children however, the speech or language problem has a real knock-on impact on their confidence in situations where they need to talk. This can happen with children of all ages, and with varying levels of speech and language difficulty. Sometimes a child has only a very mild articulation difficulty but they are very aware of it.
This lack of confidence can be particularly difficult in a classroom situation. A child might look at the floor, mumble or refuse to answer questions. All of these things make them even more difficult to understand and so the cycle goes on. As someone who was pretty shy when I was in school (though I didn’t have speech and language difficulties) I have some sympathy with feeling uncomfortable being asked to talk in front of a class! So I thought today I would share some tips for encouraging confident communication in children with speech and language difficulties.
1) Don’t put pressure on the child to speak. This is really important and probably the thing that will make the biggest difference. With young children, try not to keep asking questions to draw them out. Instead pause lots and comment on what they are doing in short phrases instead. You can find out more about this strategy and why it helps here and here. With older children, don’t put them on the spot by directing a question to them in front of the whole class. Give them an opportunity when they volunteer but don’t force the issue.
2) Focus on communication, not necessarily speech. This is particularly true if a child has very limited language or is very unintelligible, but even for a child with a more minor difficulty, it is much more useful to focus on them communicating in a positive way first. Once they are communicating successfully and are understood, they are much more likely to try speech. If the child uses signing or another form of communication, encourage them to use this. Otherwise encourage gesture, drawing, showing you, anything that works!
3) Give a bit of extra time. Children with speech or language difficulties often need a bit more time to process and formulate their response. They will also find it more difficult to talk while doing something else than other children do. Be aware of this, pause frequently and give them plenty of time to respond. Pausing frequently and slowing down yourself is a more effective strategy than saying “take your time”.
4) Give the child an opportunity to rehearse their answer. There are ways to do this without singling one child out. Try asking the whole class to take a minute to think then share their ideas with a partner. Alternatively, if there is another adult in the classroom, they can subtly sit with the child (and others) in the group and give them a chance to practise what they want to say. I have seen children whose self-esteem is hugely boosted by giving a correct answer to a question – this is often far more important than the fact that they may have had a little help to get to it!
5) Keep it fun. If the child has sufficient speech and language skills, play simple language games in pairs or small groups. If the aim is to raise confidence, then make sure that it is a game that the child can succeed at. Another way of keeping it fun is to give silly answers or instructions and see if the child will correct you (eg put your lunchbox on your head).
6) Point out your own errors. We all make mistakes sometimes when we are talking. Point your own out every now and then and model how to deal with it. EG Say “oh dear I said that word wrong. I’ll try again”. It’s really good for children to see that other people struggle to be understood at times.
7) Keep giving the child opportunities to have a go if they want to. Although we don’t want the child to feel under pressure, it can be easy to just assume that they don’t want a turn, have nothing to say or don’t know the answer. Keep giving opportunities for them to talk – one day they may surprise you!
What do you find helps with children who are reluctant to communicate due to their speech or language difficulties? Do share any more tips here. Also, if you want more tips for talking to a child with unclear speech, check out our tips here.