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Understanding the Triad of Communication for Young Children: Facilitating Autonomy, Choice, and Options

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The triad of communication is an essential concept in early childhood development, emphasising the importance of fostering autonomy and enabling choices through functional communication skills, which are crucial for child development. This triad consists of three key components: the ability to initiate requests to meet desires, the ability to make choices, and the ability to respond affirmatively or negatively to desire-based questions. Understanding and nurturing these skills in young children, particularly those with language delays, is crucial for their development of independence and decision-making capabilities. In addition, having these essential skills may prevent behaviours that are barriers to learning, such as screaming or tantrums behaviour, to get needs met.

Requesting to Meet Desires in Children

The first aspect of this triad is the ability of children to communicate their needs and wants effectively. Non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, play a significant role in how children communicate their needs and wants effectively. This skill is essential as it allows children to express their desires without resorting to behaviours such as screaming or tantrums. While they may be effective for the child in the short term to get their needs met, this likely will restrict environments, create barriers to accessing reinforcement and reduce learning opportunities. 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.

Ability to Make Choices in Child Development

The second component of the triad is empowering children to make choices. Empowering children to make choices is a crucial aspect of their daily experiences and overall well-being, significantly impacting a child’s life. 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 essential 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 essential that you already know what your child wants. You can do this by checking their preference; it can be done very subtly, but seeing which item they may reach for and then asking, “Which one do you want?” and they get you can say, “Biscuit!” Over time, you can fade this echoic cue, and children will learn to respond with verbal responses.

Responding to Desire-Based Questions with Communication Skills

The final component of the triad is the child’s ability to respond with a “yes” or “no” to questions about their desires, which 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 now and then to ensure understanding, as they may face great difficulty in accurately expressing their desires. 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, asking, “Do you want milk? And the child saying “Milk?” is not affirmative and creates confusion and possible behaviours that create barriers to learning.


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 significantly 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.

The involvement of family members is crucial in supporting the child’s communication development and ensuring they have a voice in their own lives. If children are non-vocal verbal, this triad is even more crucial as different response options through augmentative communication should be taught. AAC systems can range from picture boards to high-tech devices that generate speech. These tools provide a voice to those who cannot communicate verbally, allowing them to express their needs, make choices, and respond to questions just like their vocal peers. Different teaching strategies and scaffolding procedures may need to be used to ensure fluency and genuine autonomy and choice.

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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