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Communication Is Key

Try these 7 strategies to build your child’s self–expression skills.


You have the potential to have a strong impact on your child's ability to express herself. Through your words and actions, you can model behavior that she will emulate — speaking up for herself, complaining in an effective way, and getting people to treat her the way she wants to treated. Try these building-block steps for helping your child learn to use spoken language effectively. They are especially important for children with learning differences, but can be helpful for any child.

Teach your child to interpret spoken and body language.
Reinforce the concept of "personal space."
Explain the meaning of idiomatic expressions.
Work on the art of conversation.
Model behavior that shows the smart way to ask for help or a favor.
Demonstrate the power of "please" and "thank you."
Teach your child how to listen and follow directions.

Teach your child to interpret spoken and body language. Some children need more instruction than others to acquire the critical social skill of reading the emotions behind facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Here's how you can help him become more proficient.

  • Look at photographs of people expressing different emotions. Ask your child to identify how he thinks each person is feeling and why. If he misidentifies the emotion, point out clues about the appropriate emotion (knitted eyebrows, gritted teeth). You can do the same when watching television.

  • Cut out a cardboard frame to act as a "mirror." Make a face that represents a particular emotion, then ask your child to mimic the face and identify the expression he is making.

  • Use everyday situations in your home to help him get a better handle on how others are reacting. Say, "Look at your sister's face. How do you think she feels? Why?"

  • Make a game of identifying the emotions that go with tone of voice. You might say, "Dinner's ready. Come to the table," using different pitches, intensity, and loudness. Then ask your child to say a sentence three different ways to convey differences in emotion. Talk about when a normal tone of voice works, and when it might be necessary to deliver a message in a stronger, shriller, or demanding tone.

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Reinforce the concept of "personal space." If your child is having difficulty reading body language, chances are good she isn't aware that others may react negatively when she gets "in their face" or touches them. Explain what most children like and don't like. Reinforce the message with frequent and specific reminders about what's appropriate — and what's not. They might include:

  • Stay at arm's length — and no closer — when you're talking to someone.

  • Make sure there's space between you and another child when sitting together at a lunch table, in a car, or on the classroom floor.

  • Don't hug someone you don't know well or whom you've just met. A big smile is a better way to show you like that person.

  • Don't intrude on another child's space by touching, pinching, or physically annoying him or her. If you want to put your arm around a classmate, ask first.

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Explain the meaning of idiomatic expressions. Slowness in grasping the subtleties of language can be a real albatross in social situations. Kids may not get a joke (or get it quickly enough) to react appropriately. They may misunderstand directions or instructions. As middle-schoolers and teens, they may not be able to kid around with the same grace and ease as their peers. Do your child a big favor by translating idioms for him, and explaining the beyond-the-literal meaning.

Work on the art of conversation. Your exchanges with your child can boost her language development and give her an advantage she may not otherwise have — knowing how to listen and join in conversations.

  • Initiate conversations with your child. Pick a time and place when there are not attractive distractions. Ask questions about things that matter to him — school, friends, a favorite television show, computer or video game.

  • When you don't understand something your child says because it's not a complete sentence or thought, or it doesn't answer your question, ask her what she means. Then restate your question and her answer so she understands the relationship between the two.

  • Encourage your child to ask you questions (to make the exchange a true conversation). Praise questions that are thoughtful, on topic, or that use language well. Explain why a question is inappropriate, not clearly expressed, or off topic. Use complete sentences in giving your answer.

  • Make good eye contact, and ask your child to look at you when she's talking to you. This skill requires both self-confidence and self-awareness, and usually takes a great deal of practice and time to do well, says speech therapist Juliet Melamid. So reward small successes with verbal praise.

  • Encourage your child to keep his body in control (no kicking the chair or tapping his fingers on the table) when he is talking. Explain that fidgeting, squirming, and noises can interfere with how the listener "hears" the message.

  • Work at having successively longer conversations. Don't be discouraged if, at first, your child's answers are monosyllabic and she cannot come up with any questions. You may need to redirect the subject of the conversation or try again at a more opportune moment.

  • Have conversations with your child about things beyond everyday matters. Some children with learning differences have no problem with conversational English because it's redundant and filled with contextual cues. But they have difficulty processing and using literate language, that is, language that is needed to discuss issues and abstract ideas. Children whose families use literate language (which is also "the language" of the classroom) have an advantage. To expose your child to this kind of language, read newspapers to him and with him; talk about current events. Look for TV programming that uses literate language. Programs designed for children that focus on science, wildlife, current events, history, or geography are good candidates.

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Model behavior that teaches the smart way to ask for help or a favor. Everyday situations provide many terrific opportunities to show your child how to get something she needs or wants. Whenever you ask for help from a friend, neighbor, relative, or the person you're dealing with in a store or restaurant, share the experience with your child.

  • Explain what the favor is. For example, "I need to ask Mrs. Foster if I can borrow an egg for this recipe."

  • Rehearse what you're going to say. Depending on your child's age and interest, you might ask her for input on which option sounds best. Use different tones of voice and choices of language. For example: "I need an egg! Give me one," or "Would it possible for me to borrow an egg? I'll replace it when I go to the store tomorrow."

  • Have your child listen to your conversation. Then talk about the outcome and why what you did worked or how you could have handled an unexpected outcome better.

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Demonstrate the power of "please" and "thank you." It's more than good manners; asking for help with the right words and acknowledging help given are powerful tools, especially for children with special needs. Model the behavior yourself in real-life conversations, then explain how and why you've used your words and tone of voice effectively. All kinds of situations lend themselves to teaching by example: when you ask a neighbor to get your mail when you're going to be away, when you ask a sales clerk for assistance in finding an item, when you make calls to other parents from school about helping out with a school function.

Ask your children to practice being polite with you and each other. Compliment them when they remember to make their requests using the right words and tone of voice. You might even give them points or stars for making polite requests and acknowledging favors when you're visiting friends or relatives or in other social situations where you can monitor their behavior.

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Teach your child how to listen and follow directions. These skills are critical for school, work, and play, but can be very difficult for children with learning differences and ADHD. You can help identify the points at which she may be having problems and reinforce good habits by doing the following:

  • Get her attention. Calling her name probably won't do the trick. A touch on the shoulder or arm is better; in fact, it helps to agree on a signal that you will use each time. You may want her to acknowledge that she's ready to listen by making eye contact, touching you back, or by saying, "I'm ready."

  • Be specific about what you want your child to do. Your child may not do what you expect if you say, "Get ready for school." You may need to break a task down into steps. Ask her to carry out the first step, such as brushing her teeth, then check back in with you for the next direction.

  • Check for understanding. If your child is familiar with a routine or is able to remember several directions, ask him to repeat back to you what he's about to do to make sure he's clear about what you're asking.

  • Compliment your child for listening and following directions successfully. If he has forgotten something, prompt him.

From Be Your Child's Best Advocate by Peggy Schmidt, available at Xlibris. Copyright © 2001 Peggy Schmidt. All rights reserved.

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