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Three crucial communication skills for young children

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In order to develop independence and decision-making, young children need three crucial skills known as the “triad of communication.”

  • The ability to ask for things they want or need
  • The ability to communicate a preference
  • The ability to respond yes or no.

1. The ability to ask for things they want or need

Tantrums and screaming might be an effective way for a child to have their needs met in the short-term. For instance, a child might scream because they want a toy that another child is playing with, rather than saying, “Can I have a turn?” 

Teaching children to use words to express their needs helps them interact socially and be understood by others.

Parents and caregivers can encourage this by modelling appropriate ways to ask for things. For example, instead of giving a child something when they cry, prompt them before they get upset with language they can mimic, such as “Can I have water?” 

Over time, with consistent scaffolding, children learn that communicating their desires through words is more effective and gets them what they desire faster. Later you can teach that they may need to wait or that the item may not be available

2. The ability to communicate a preference

Secondly, it’s important to empower children to make choices. This can be facilitated by presenting options verbally and encouraging them to select between alternatives. For instance, a parent might say, “biscuit or chocolate?” while holding one in each hand. As the child is reaching, the caregiver can encourage the child to say “biscuit”. This practice not only promotes decision-making skills but also respects the child’s preference, fostering a sense of independence.

However, for children with language delays, parents should carefully consider how they frame these choices. It’s important to present the option the child most likely prefers first if they tend to repeat only the last part of a question. This helps in accurately gauging the child’s true choice without them simply echoing words. As you are teaching this skill, it is important that you already know what your child wants. You can do this by checking their preference, it can be done very subtle but seeing which item they may reach for and then ask, “which one do you want?” and say they reach you can say “biscuit!” Over time you can fade this echoic cue and children will learn to respond with the verbal response.

3. The ability to respond yes or no

A child’s ability to respond with a “yes” or “no” to questions about their desires is crucial for expressing consent or dissent. For example, asking, “Do you want to go outside?” allows the child to affirm or deny the desire to engage in that activity. This skill is fundamental in teaching children that they have control over certain aspects of their lives and that their opinions matter.

For children with language delays who may echo speech, it’s important to perform correspondence checks every now and then to ensure understanding. For example, if a child echoes the last option given in a choice, the caregiver might rephrase to have the option order reversed. If a child is repeating what the preferred item is, then it is important to rephrase the question and ensure a yes or no response. For example if you ask, “Do you want milk?” If the child responds, “Milk?” this is not affirmative. 

Conclusion

The triad of communication is crucial in the early years of a child’s life as it lays the groundwork for independence, social interaction, and personal choice. By focusing on these three aspects, parents and caregivers can greatly assist children, especially those with language delays, in becoming effective communicators. This not only helps in their current interactions but also sets a strong foundation for their future relational and educational experiences. 

Teaching young children how to request appropriately, make choices, and respond to questions about their preferences empowers them to have a voice in their own lives, promoting autonomy and respect for their individuality.

A note for parents of non-vocal children

If children are non-vocal, this triad is even more crucial as different response options through augmentative communication should be taught. There are a range of tools available to provide a voice for those who cannot communicate verbally.

About the author

Is my child at risk for developmental delay?

This checklist for toddlers is used to check toddlers aged 16 to 30 months for signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and developmental delay.

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Joshua's professional journey began in 2000, and since then, he has dedicated himself to the field of behavior analysis, both in practice and academia. His area of expertise involves providing direct consultation services for various age groups, focusing on behavior acceleration and deceleration.

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