Here are 8 suggestions for good habits that all parents at home can cultivate that can help their child in increasing speech development and minimising problematic behaviours.
Spend time playing with your children
Playing is a form of learning. While it may not be obvious at first glance, we develop many skills from play, especially play that includes hands-on involvement. They could be things like simple turn taking, cooperative play, taking different perspectives, and even problem solving (https://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital).
So, make some time to play with your children. You can try to engage them in games like pretend play, board games, or anything interactive and hands-on. For children who are very young, you can play simple games like peekaboo or even develop your own to help them with things like practising eye contact or motor development. For example, you can make funny faces when they catch your eye, reinforcing the contact they made. You can even develop special routines with them that they can look forward to every week, such as games day, ice cream day, movie night, and so on. Having such a schedule can also teach them to be more aware of the days in a week, such as helping them count down with a calendar, etc. Furthermore, such activities will help you to bond and build a good relationship with them. In turn, this will help to minimise problematic behaviours when they occur because they would be more inclined to listening and following your instructions.
Paying attention to good behaviour and praising them for it
“Something is better than nothing.”
This is often the attitude of children when it comes to getting the attention of adults. The unfortunate fact is that most adults tend to take good behaviour for granted. When children sit well, it’s expected. When they do their homework on time, it’s not particularly praise-worthy behaviour. We think of such things as the “things they should do anyway”. Rarely does it occur to us that such behaviour deserves recognition and praise, even though they do!
The situation is made worse because parents also tend to pay a lot of attention to negative behaviour. In the long run, the child may start noticing this: positive behaviour = minimal attention; negative behaviour = lots of attention! A child who is desperate to get the attention of an adult may then start to lean towards using negative behaviour to do so. And most adults would respond rapidly to it!
To circumvent this, it is best to train yourself to pick out more positive behaviours than negative ones. Rather than focusing on the fact that your child is unable to sit well on the chair, praise him immediately when you notice he’s trying to settle and reward him for it. Also, try to be as specific as you can when you reward him, eg. “Wow, you’re sitting so well! Let’s watch that cartoon you like!”
Think about what you feel should be “expected behaviours” from your children and keep a lookout for them. Especially with little munchkins that tend to act up often in a bid for your attention, take every little opportunity you have to praise them! Watch them light up when you praise them. Most children respond better to praises than admonishments. This will also provide a good buffer for occasions when you really need to reprimand them and help them take the situation seriously.
Teaching replacement behaviours
Sometimes, children may use the wrong methods to get to something they want. Instead of asking for money to buy a snack, they may try sneaking a packet off the shelf like how they saw it done in some television programme or try other bright ideas they might have.
In more of a day-to-day example, rather than calling for “Mummy” as most children would, a child with autism might bang on the table loudly as he has learnt it is the quickest way to get his mother’s attention. To correct that, we need not only to identify the problematic behaviour, but also provide a replacement behaviour to serve the same function in more appropriate ways. For example, we can teach the child to walk to Mummy and tap her or loudly call out, “Mummy!” to get her attention.
Simply stopping the child from banging the table would not help as there is no replacement behaviour to serve the purpose with which the child is acting on. As most behaviours are triggered by certain functions, it is important to replace the behaviour with a more appropriate one so that the child would be able to function well socially and be able to get access to the things he desires in appropriate ways.
Modelling good behaviour
I have mentioned this a few times before in previous articles, but it is crucial for adult figures to model good behaviour for children. Children are much more observant than we give them credit for, and they will copy what we are showing them. So, if your child is banging the table and shouting at you when they are angry, ask yourself if any adult, including yourself, has been showing such behaviour.
Practice establishing rules and setting up schedules
In my articles, a recurring tip that keeps coming up is the importance of establishing reasonable rules for children. This is essential for all children, not just one on the spectrum, because a child is a child. Most would not have the cognitive ability to fully comprehend the things they agree to or the potential consequences of their actions. As such, it is essential that the adults in their lives set rules for them for their own safety and for practising self-regulation. If 9pm is bedtime, the child should be in bed by that time, or at least in their room with minimal extra stimulation.
Establishing routines in areas of daily living, such as a sleeping curfew, restricted video/TV time, dining habits, toileting habits, independent changing, etc. can help a child be more independent and better understand expected behaviours during certain periods of the day. When it’s dinner time, they should be sitting down and eating at the dining table; when it’s class time, they should be doing activities at the table with the teachers.
Initially, it may be difficult for parents when they are familiarising the child with the routine. In the long run, however, day-to-day needs are settled with less hassle and can save parents a lot of stress and time.
With children with autism who tend to get anxious, established routines can also help them be less anxious. You can use a visual schedule to help them understand the order of the activities and what will come next. However, as individuals with autism often become overly fixated on certain established patterns, it may be important to make minor changes now and then, in the order of events or details within the activity itself to help them become accustomed to sudden changes. As they become more comfortable, you can make bigger and more obvious changes, so they have the opportunity to practise coping with the necessary discomfort of change prevalent in almost every aspect of our daily lives.
Note that these rules should be reasonable. We should make rules that are appropriate for their age. It is also crucial for parents to follow through with the consequences they intended to give to establish cause-and-effect understanding. With ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) children, it is especially important to make sure that the consequence is presented immediately after the behaviour presents itself. This is essential to help make the strongest association between the behaviour and the consequence to either increase or decrease said behaviour. It is the same with rewards. Reward a good behaviour immediately after!
Using good language with children and around them
One way of encouraging speech development in your children is to increase your child’s exposure to good language. This means making a conscious effort to speak more with your children, such as narrating and pointing things out in the environment. This is especially important if the child expresses an interest in the object. For eg. “There goes a train. Choo! Choo!” You can also get them to point at things to help direct their attention.
As most of our children have varying difficulties picking up language, it may also be beneficial for parents to stick to using mainly the language they want the child to pick up. This allows them maximum exposure to the words and sounds we hope for them to learn. Parents can also try to incorporate activities that make learning languages fun, such as singing along to songs and practising fill-ins with them. They may also enjoy having bedtime stories read to them.
Creating a positive environment regarding the use of speech
What do we mean? Just before, we talked about narrating and using words around and with the child. That is one of the aspects of a positive environment. Essentially, we want to make it as motivating as possible for a child to speak or try speaking. If your child is babbling and making a lot of sounds (from making no sounds at all), let yourself respond excitedly (as you would already be). We don’t just want to reward making the correct sounds, we also want to make sure we reward the behaviour of making the effort; of trying.
On another note, when parents sometimes become overenthusiastic about initial results, they can become a tad too demanding. This occasionally happens when the child starts out being non-vocal and begin making progress with sounds. Upon hearing that their child managed to say a word or make some sound, they may start expecting them to verbally mand or excitedly ask them to repeat their first utterance. In cases like that, the child may begin to associate talking with work and it becomes a laborious task in their mind. This decreases their motivation to speak and may even extinguish the small spark of fire that had just barely gotten going.
Instead of asking a lot of questions in hopes for answers, this is the time when parents should continue with the narrations so that the child can go on building associations. Even with daily things that you feel is unnecessary to narrate, making the conscious effort to keep talking will certainly enrich the child’s environment with sounds and words, making it more conducive and encouraging for them to try.
Ruling out medical issues
Most importantly, if your child is having difficulty speaking, the first thing you should probably do is bring them to the doctors for a physical examination. This ensures that it is not a physical issue that may require some other medical intervention. In the case that it is, catching it early would ensure that the child has sufficient time to catch up developmentally once they manage to resolve the issue.
Written by Felicia.