Conversation is tricky. There are so many moving parts but many of us learn it incidentally. However, for some of our students, it’s not always as easy. When do I talk about myself vs. ask a question? When is it appropriate to change the subject? Sometimes as a result of therapy, our kids get really good at answering a question when spoken to but not at initiating conversation. It’s important to be able to answer “What’s your name” but it’s just as important to be able to approach another child and say “Hi, my name is Jack”.
So how do we teach this??
Make it natural
When I first started in the field, I was taught to talk to my client with an “SD voice”. This voice was supposed to be a neutral, non-reinforcing tone that exuded control. I always got slack for this one ; ) I understand the premise and I agree that we have to establish authority and using a firm tone and instruction shows them that I am in control. But I firmly believe that this has to be balanced with a natural, friendly tone of voice. This gets especially tricky with praise. We want our kids to be reinforced by praise but if someone said to me “Good job!” 10 times an hour in a high-pitched voice, I would consider that punishment. We are our kiddos best model for appropriate language. We should talk to them with the language and voice that we want them to use. If you’re working with a teen, this might mean looking up the “hippest” slang words so that you can use them in context.
Use a visual
For those kids for whom learning language is a challenge, it remains a challenge no matter how often we talk about it. Stop talking, and show them. We often use a visual with conversation starters on it to prompt them to initiate the conversation. This can be something that is used in practice at home/therapy and then can be generalized to other settings. Use it as a teaching tool and then the more they become familiar with it, the more likely they are to use it naturally.
Teach them to ask OTHERS questions
What if we were the ones answering the questions instead of asking? I teach students to ask me questions like “Guess what I did this weekend?” or “Guess where I’m going tomorrow?”. I use a visual for teaching purposes and then fade the visual systematically. A great way to teach this is to use a calendar with personal events on it. Use it as a visual to promote conversation. You can point to an event on the calendar (eg: “Swimming lesson”) and prompt the student to ask “Guess where I’m going today?”. Then turn it into a natural conversation by answering back “Where?” For more information on this, check out our “Guess What…” program free download.
Teach them to comment
Most of our naturally occurring conversations involve more commenting that questions. Think about it – we come home from work, say hi, talk about something good that happened, something bad that happened, and the conversation naturally unfolds. We don’t wait for a question to talk so neither should our kiddos. I start by teaching kids to comment on what they see. We can be looking at pictures in a book or be at the park and say something like “I see a bird”. Instead of asking “What do you see?”, prompt them to say “I see…(something else)”. This may require a visual prompt at first but it can be faded.