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How to Teach Communication Skills to Young Learners

By October 18, 2021January 31st, 2022No Comments

Note: The following blog post is based on a Bierman  Caregiver Webinar.

There are many different ways to communicate. For kids, they are oftentimes still figuring out which type of communication is easiest for them. Examples of communication can include gestures, picture exchange, speech generating devices, vocal communication, and sign language.

What do each of these mean? Here are some examples.

● Gesture: Your child is hungry for a snack, so they went up to you and grabbed your hand. They guided you to the pantry and reached toward the doorknob. You opened the pantry door and they pointed to a box of crackers. They’re using a gesture as a communication method to lead you to where they want you to go.

● Picture Exchange: Your child is playing with their toys by the window, and they saw their neighbor running outside. Your child grabbed their picture book. It’s filled with icons of all their favorite things and grab the picture of the outside. They handed this picture to you ot indicate that they want to go outside.

Speech Generating Device: Your child wants to watch Bubble Guppies on TV. They grab their device (this could be an application on an iPad, or a device specifically made only for communication software) and walk up to you and navigate to the device to have the device say, “I want to watch bubble guppies.” Similar to picture exchange communication there are picture icons throughout the device that signal different items or activities.

Vocal: You’re walking with your child to the park, and they see a dog and say, “Look, a dog!” They are communicating that they recognize something familiar.

Sign Language: Your child is eating in their highchair and they use the sign for more to indicate that they want more food on their plate.



A major part of communication is the ability to request. This is how your child communicates that they want something.

Gesture Communication: You would hold out two options of snacks, grapes, and oranges that your child can have and your child points to the orange; this is how they are telling you that they want something. In sign language, your child may be drinking orange juice and finishes it, looks at you and signs for more juice.

Vocal Language: your child may be reaching in the pantry for cookies. You tell them, “Say cookie”, and your child repeats the phrase, and you give it to them.


How do we increase requests?

Depending on your child, increasing requests will be a little different. Instead of just anticipating their wants and needs and giving them something, you can provide options and let them request what they want. This gives them that opportunity and time to voice what they want, to gesture, to exchange a picture, or to sign and be able to have that request honored.

Modeling how to request is also an important skill. Children pick up everything. So, we should teach them that requesting is something that we need to do throughout our lives. For example, you can say, “Hey, can you give me the fork please?” or “Pass me the book?” Just modeling requests throughout their day will show them what it is like and demonstrate how they can communicate. If they are a device user, they could point using their device or picture board. At Bierman ABA Autism Center, if we are using a picture boards or using a speech generating device, we will have those devices with your children throughout the entire day. It is important that they always have easy access to their words. We want that to be replicated at home as well. We want them to be able to have their device and can communicate with you at any time.


How to increase labeling

To increase labeling, model language in your home and out in your community with the same mode of communication that your child uses and with your vocal language. If you see a bird you say, “look, there’s a bird,” and you also may sign bird, or you point to the bird in their picture book or device. You’re showing them by using their mode of communication and you’re also pairing it with your vocal language as a model. Then when your child does label what’s incurring in their environment, you can provide attention and praise.


How do we increase conversation?

For early learners, a great way to increase conversation is to start with fill-in statements. Fill in statements are like songs, like Old McDonald, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, and Happy Birthday. You can also do animal sounds. You can also prompt them to say simple associations, you could say, “The dog says…”, and your child says, “Woof!”


Putting it all together

While your child may be good at asking for something that they want, they still may not know how to communicate what they want properly. That’s why it’s important to teach across a variety of behaviors or skills. If they see a chocolate cake and they’re hungry, they need to know how to ask for it by making a request or labeling it when they see a cake and point it out. We at Bierman make sure we are teaching requesting, labeling, intraverbals, echoing sounds, and following directions.


Function of behavior and language

We believe there are four main functions of behavior.

To access to an item or activity: For access to an item your child wants something so how do they communicate their wants and needs to you?

Escape from a demand or an aversive situation: You ask your child to clean up their toys and they still want to play. How do they communicate that they want to keep playing?

Attention from others: How does your child gain attention from others? Do they call your name? Do they sign?

Sensory stimulation: Sensory stimulation is not contingent on others. Something about that behavior itself is reinforcing. This could look like scripting videos or songs.


How is communication linked to challenging behavior?

Oftentimes children don’t have a socially appropriate way to communicate and as a result, engage in challenging behavior to get their wants and needs met. How do we help? We can use functional communication to replace challenging behavior.

Replacement behavior is behavior that is socially appropriate that allows your child to gain reinforcement without engaging in challenging behavior. We can determine what the cause of the behavior is and prompt and appropriate response. When we’re thinking about replacement behavior, we want to think about three things:

1.What is the behavior?

2. What is the function of the behavior? Is it access, attention, escape, or sensory stimulation

3. What replacement behavior can you prompt?

Here is a good example of replacement behavior. You tell your child, it’s time to go to bed and they begin to cry and throw toys. The behavior that we’re looking at is crying and throwing toys. What is the function of the behavior? The function of this behavior is escape; they want to escape going to bed. What is a replacement behavior that we could prompt for them? You can ask them for one more minute, exchanging a one more minute card, asking for more time.


What is the ultimate goal?

A lot of challenging behavior we see is a result of children not having the skills or motivation to access something that they want or need. Our goal is to decrease the child’s need to engage in those challenging behaviors and increase their desire to request the things they want and communicate in a way that can be understood by all. Teaching other types of communication is equally as important as we want the child to be able to understand the world around them and how they can communicate with the things that they see and feel.


The main idea is to identify the reason a child is trying to communicate.

Always increase opportunities for the child to practice communicating. Additionally, instead of anticipating all their wants and needs, having them ask or prompting them to ask, or just giving them options to repeat what you are saying. It is our job to show how fun and helpful language can be