What is functional communication and how can you support it at home?
The goal of speech therapy is to help your child communicate more successfully across ALL settings: home, school, play dates, doctor’s offices, restaurants, and more. That means both speech therapists and parents have to teach functional communication skills.
So what is functional communication?
It is the ability to use the language to express their wants, needs, feelings, and preferences in an effective way. A good functional communicator will be able to communicate without relying on negative behaviors to get their needs and feelings across. This will look different for every child depending on their level of communication skills. For typical children, functional language is the first type of communication to emerge. But many children with language disorders need to be taught functional communication skills explicitly.
While functional communication is typically discussed as a goal for minimally verbal children, it is important to teach higher-functioning children to communicate their needs in a way that makes others feel safe and comfortable. This is key for them to succeed in school, social settings, and jobs as a teen or an adult. Some of our higher functioning, socially challenged communicators may have a large vocabulary and the ability to produce sentences, but difficulty expressing their needs in a calm, expected way. That means they have difficulty using their language in a functional way. Parents and therapists can target this skill for high functioning children by taking them into the community, and teaching or modeling how to communication in a functional way in every-day tasks.
No matter how your child communicates, the goal is not for them to learn vocabulary and sentences on flash cards in a therapy room, and then leave it behind at the end of the session. The goal IS for them to learn how to use their language to communicate successfully across all settings.
Luckily, there are countless ways to target these skills at home with your child. If your child is having difficulty communicating their needs, it is best to consult a speech pathologist who can teach you strategies to use at home with your child. They will likely teach you that the best way to target functional communication is through…. You guessed it! Functional activities, or activities that involve routines or hands-on, day-to-day tasks.
How can therapists and parents work on functional communication?
Functional communication goals will vary based on the communication level of your child.
First, we determine the appropriate means of communication for your child. That may mean using AAC devices for nonverbal children, one word phrases for minimally verbal children, or socially expected language for high functioning children.
Then we determine the most effective forms of communication to target. Next, we model the language for your child, and last we create opportunities in which they must use their language.
For younger children, you may be targeting simple requests. You can begin by withholding basic items that they want so that they must use their words to request. This is called tempting or sabotaging your child. While it may seem like you’re not being nice, remember that you are creating opportunities that require them to use language. Your child won’t start to use his words if there is no need to talk! Set your child up in a routine activity, but with something missing.
For example, if it is breakfast time, and they want their juice, put the juice just out of reach.
Model language for them by asking what they want before giving it to them (e.g., “What do you want, Tommy?”)
WAIT and see if they use their words to request.
If they still don’t request, you can model a request (e.g., “I think Tommy wants the juice!” Do you want the juice?” or “You say… give me juice”).
At bath time, put them in a tub without their favorite toy. At dinner time, put their plate down, but no fork or spoon. When putting on a TV show, put on the wrong channel. There are endless opportunities to tempt your child into talking.
For older children, you may target their ability to communicate in the expected and effective way in a variety of settings. This means taking them out into the community, modeling expected language, and then giving them an opportunity to use their language. For a more challenged child, this may mean making simple requests in a restaurant (e.g., “I want pizza” ). For a higher functioning child, this may mean using language in the socially expected way (e.g., “May I please have one slice of cheese pizza and a coke”). For many of our socially challenged learners, this also means learning to express their frustration or their need for a break in an expected and safe way.
Functional communication will look different in every child. However, once you know the goals of functional communication, you can begin to change the way you interact with your child to support their ability to use language in a successful, FUNCTIONAL way. Learning does not have to take place in a structured therapy room. It can take place every day, in every interaction you have with your child.