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Focus on Function!

Early Communication Works Best When it gets Things Done.

During a recent speech language evaluation of a two-year-old, a parent told me proudly, “My child can count to 10 and knows every letter in the alphabet.” This family had been working hard on teaching academic skills using books, flash cards, and educational programs on tv. But this same parent was also frustrated that their child is frequently crying and having tantrums when they want something.

After finishing the speech language evaluation, we discussed the importance of functional communication. Functional communication means that the child is able to spontaneously and effectively communicate their wants, needs, or ideas. A deficit in functional communication happens when the majority of the child’s communication effort is spent learning academic skills.

"At 6, 12, and 18 months, I honestly wasn't sure if she would ever talk. Hearing her express her ideas, have conversations, and sing (!) now at 3.5 regularly brings tears to my eyes." — Gina D. (full review lower)

It comes as no surprise...

Most speech language pathologists know that families tend to focus on academic concepts rather than functional ones. The sheer volume of fun and engaging educational toys and programs with their flashy colors and catchy songs are a pretty convincing argument that academic concepts are imperative and should be the first order of business when teaching a child to communicate. Your speech language pathologist can tell you a different story.

Speech language pathologists are helping families find a healthy balance to promote functional language skills.

Knowing letters, numbers, colors, and shapes are extremely important skills and should definitely be learned when it is developmentally appropriate to do so. According to the U.S. Department of Education, that window opens between the ages of 3 and 4. If you only target these skills prior to that age then children will be unable to communicate wants and needs with their parents, caregivers, teachers, peers, or community helpers. The most important skill you can teach your toddler is functional communication.

You may be wondering…

“How do you work on functional communication at home?” This is specific to each child because not every child is motivated by the same things or has the same needs. One child may be very bothered by a dirty diaper and for them a good functional word would be “diaper”, “pee pee”, or “poo poo”. Another child may not care about their diaper at all but may need to communicate dietary needs. Here's advice to reinforce the child's communication of their needs. Consider what is most important to your child and begin there. Does your child have a favorite toy, food, or activity? Target these words first. A child is more likely to produce a word for something they are motivated by or really enjoy.

Does your family need more concrete information?

Sometimes a list of most common words works best. We can discuss the importance of a variety of words and make sure the family understands which words to focus on. Nouns are typically the easiest for a child as you can touch and see the object – book, sock, shoes, bubbles, diaper, car, train, different animals, and different foods. Verbs encourage self-advocating and are powerful one-word utterances to communicate a need – go, stop, eat, drink, sit, and look. Adjectives are used to describe – big, little, hot, cold, yucky, dirty, and clean. Prepositions will help with being specific about an item’s location – in, on, off, and out. Pronouns help determine ownership – mine, my, I, you. This is not an exhaustive list of words and your toddler will need exposure to hundreds of words. However, focusing on a few words at first may help your family focus your efforts and maximize the likelihood that your child will produce a word and build their communication skills.

If your child has already learned their letters, numbers, shapes, and colors, use them to help expand their vocabulary. If a child knows their letters, connect the letter to an object. “A – apple. Eat apple.” Be sure to pair this with the actual item to reinforce the connection between the word and the item. If a child likes numbers, they can request a favorite snack. “3… crackers.” Make sure to emphasize the new word, cracker. If you need ideas for how to teach an individual word, check out our Model, Wait, and Reinforce blog that teaches this skill.

If your child is unable to communicate functionally, call us for a free phone consultation. We will help you determine if speech language therapy is needed for your child.


"Jessie is such a loving and caring therapist. Her passion for helping her patients and families show every visit. She is open to what works for each patient while being effective and productive. She is responsive and able to adapt to her patient's moods. Speech therapy has never been my son's favorite, and he has been to known to be a bit difficult, but it never slowed Jessie down. She was always so loving and made the sessions fun for him. I would recommend her to anyone looking for a great therapist." – Belinda

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