Since attending the Down syndrome Educational International Conference in Cleveland, Ohio I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we [speech pathologists] teach children to communicate. One of the things I’ve noticed is we tend to teach statements instead of questions. For instance, what is one of the first phrases help children with DS learn? “I want _____.” When a child looks at you and says, “milk,” we model back, “I want milk (please).” We are really teaching them to use statements instead of requests.
Children with Down syndrome typically use fewer requests than their language- matched peers. I have begun to wonder if this is, in part, a result of the way we are teaching them to communicate early on. For this reason I have started teaching my families to encourage use of questions.
Let’s go back to the original example. Your child looks at you and says, “milk.” This time we will model, “May I have milk?” really emphasizing with your voice (intonation) that this is a question. Also, look like you are asking – use your face to convey the message. All of these unspoken clues will help your child learn this important form of communication. Then, hand the cup of milk to them. They don’t have to imitate the question phrase right away. They are learning by watching you. And just like the “I want ______” phrase question phrases help children learn to form a question and insert the item or action they are requesting.
Once you have practiced this skill during a variety of requesting activities – meals, TV, play time, etc – It’s time to have the child imitate your question phrase. I use a pacing board to show the children how to ask. We tap on the circles for each word (like we’ve done with other words and phrases in the past).
After they imitate me asking the question then I respond, “Yes! You may have some milk. Nice asking!”
Questions are so important. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard examples like these:
- From a parent of an elementary school student: “He doesn’t ask for help. He just tries to get it himself.”
- From a parent of an articulate teen: “I don’t know why she didn’t just ask her teacher?!”
- From a parent of a young adult: “His manager wasn’t at work and he didn’t ask who he should report to for his work assignment.”
Perhaps they don’t know how to ask for more information, clarification, or assistance because they haven’t been taught to ask questions. As children age in to elementary and adolescence I use modeling, social stories, role-playing, and practice outside the clinical setting to ensure the child knows how to ask questions and follow-up if they need more information. See my post on social stories for more information.
In summary – Sometimes modeling a skill isn’t enough. Sometimes the skills need to be taught directly for the child to experience later success.