Children need motivation. Especially children with Down syndrome who have speech or language disorders. Internal motivation is difficult enough for those of us without language-learning difficulties. This is why support groups for dieters are so successful. How do we encourage or motivate a child with Down syndrome to talk more? How can we help them make that connection: I want you to talk + you just talked = more talking
Imagine you are a child with DS. You understand more than people think you do. You get frustrated because it is so difficult to let them know what, how, and why you are feeling a certain way. People are always correcting you – your parents, siblings, teachers and therapists. You are told “No” frequently. So you become resourceful. You use behavior – your body, voice, or facial expressions to get you message across. You prefer to play alone your way than to interact with those who don’t understand you. Are you really motivated to communicate more?
Waiting for your child to learn to talk can be torture. You think, “If only he would talk! Then he wouldn’t get so frustrated.” And you are frustrated (mixed with sad). The good news is there are three things you can do to help your child. These techniques are borrowed from my colleagues in psychology and set the foundation for positive interaction with your little one.
First, I want you to pick a routine or activity during the day when you spend 1:1 time with your child that is also enjoyable for them. Is it bath-time? Playing with cars? Going on a walk? Choose something you can do together. During this time you are going to focus on three key words: praise, paraphrase, and point out. In psychology they call this “the 3 P’s.”
- Praise – Probably the most common thing parents do, but I want you to change it up a bit. Be very specific with your praise. This is also known as “labeled praise.” Point out the behaviors you like: “I like it when you use your words,” “Good job signing,” “Nice job showing me what you wanted!”
- Paraphrase – This is when you reflect or repeat back statements. In language therapy we use this to affirm the child’s attempts to communicate with words. For instance: Your child is playing with a car and says, “Beep-beep!” You say, “Beep-beep!” and push the car. Your child says, “My pizza.” You state, “You do have pizza. Yum!”
- *Point Out - This is when you state exactly what your child is doing. You are like a sports announcer giving play-by-play feedback. For example: “You are feeding your baby doll. You are putting the spoon on her lips. Now you are giving her a drink. You gave her the bottle!”
Use these three techniques during your routine with the most time spent on praising and paraphrasing. *Pointing out is helpful, but too much came be overload for the child with DS. Make sure you are giving him “equal air time” by waiting for responses during a period of silence. If you have a hard time being quiet after pointing out, count to 10 silently in your head. Children with DS typically respond when given increased time to listen and process what’s being said.
There are also things to avoid during this activity time. You won’t eliminate them from your life – just during the routine we talked about above.
- Questions – American parents ask TONS of questions. All the time. Set a timer if you need to. Try 2 minutes, no questions, and work your way up to 10-15 minutes. You will fail at first, so don’t beat yourself up. Try again. It’s easier to think about switching out questions with “pointing out” than, “Don’t ask questions…don’t ask questions…”
- Avoid commands - let the activity or routine flow on its own. Let your child lead and observe how they communicate with you. Do they use words or do they pull you by the hand, point, or gesture? Gently guide them back into the routine if they quickly lose interest – or see what they are moving on to – the activity the choose themselves may be more motivating to talk about.
- Avoid negative talk - this include statements like “no,” “stop it,” “quit,” or “don’t do that.” Unless the child is doing something harmful to himself or others – let the mistake go
- Avoid distractions – Turn off your phone for 10-15 minutes. Don’t check email or Facebook. Protect your time. It will be easier for both of you to focus.
Children with Down syndrome are usually motivated by social interaction. Using the 3 P’s will increase the quality of communication during your routines. Your child will notice the way you are positively interacting with him and his motivation to communicate with you will increase.
More resources on the 3 P’s and active listening: