February 23, 2023


Pro Tips

Pro Tips: Reinforcing Communication

Pro Tips provided by Claire Spangenthal, MA/SC, NCSP, BCBA, educational assistant director at Summit Academy Enhanced.

Communication is a critical skill every child needs to learn. For children with autism or other developmental disabilities, communication may come in the form of verbal words, a device, or PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System). Below are some tips on how families can help reinforce the communication skills their child is learning:

1. Break down language into small parts.

Communication may not happen verbally for every child. They may point to something they want or reach for objects. The goal is to teach a child a form of communication that will be understood by the largest audience. For example, verbal communication works for all listeners except for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Getting your child to repeat words either verbally or through a communication device is an important step early on in their development. Parents or caregivers can practice by getting their child to copy what they say. Start small and ask them to copy one word. Once they learn that, move on to teaching them how to use the word “want” so they can start making requests.

2. Learning communication terms.

If your child is working with a team on communication skills, you may hear them talk about mands and tacts. These are terms used to categorize communication. A mand is a request and a tact is a label. Requests are something a child wants whether it be information, a need, or attention. Labels are pointing to an object and naming it. Parents can practice labels by pointing at an object and saying, “Look, a cat,” or “That’s a ball.”

You can reinforce requests and labels by picking out a few items your child likes and practice by asking, “What is this?” Or you can say something like, “Here’s the ball. Can you say ball?” When they say the word, celebrate and give them the item.

3. Know the difference between honoring and acknowledging.

Honoring and acknowledging communication are critical in helping children develop communication skills. Honoring communication means giving a child what they are asking for or what they need. For example, a child may ask for something to drink. A parent can honor that request by giving the child a drink and reinforce it by saying, “Yes, you can have something to drink. Here you go.”

Acknowledging communication is telling a child that you hear them, but you may not be able to honor that request, so you pivot to another topic. For instance, a child might ask to go to Disney World. That’s probably not possible in that moment, so a parent can say, “I hear you. I want to go to Disney World too, but let’s pick something else to play with right now.” Acknowledging communication can also come in the form of casual conversation. A child might share an observation, and parents can acknowledge by saying something like, “That’s interesting. Thank you for telling me that.”

4. Practice reinforcement in natural situations every day.

Parents and caregivers can practice building communication skills throughout the day in natural situations. If your child points to something, use verbal language to say the word of the object they’re pointing at. If it’s a request, make sure to honor that request. Work on connecting the request to getting what the child wants to reinforce the communication skill.

Talk to your child’s team about what words, phrases, and techniques they’re working on so you can reinforce those skills at home.