“Don’t use your hands, use your words!”
This is probably one of the most common adages parents and teachers use when addressing children in the midst of a behavioral outburst. But what about the children who can’t use their words – either because they don’t have the words at all, or because they have trouble accessing language when they are overwhelmed, overstimulated, or upset?
In our previous article, we explained the steps for using language modeling as a tool to help very young children acquire natural language. But language modeling is not just for toddlers. It can be a helpful strategy to use with children demonstrating challenging behaviors as well. Particularly for a child who struggles with expressive language, a situation that could otherwise be resolved verbally may escalate into a physical outburst because, despite the adage, he cannot use his words to express himself in that moment.
While many factors play into behavior, for some children it is important to consider the role of language and how it plays into their difficulty handling a situation safely. Take, for instance, a student who becomes frustrated during a math lesson he does not understand. He’d like to request clarification, but he’s becoming so overwhelmed by the assignment that he has trouble accessing the words he can use to ask. So the lesson goes on, the teacher continues speaking, and he becomes more upset. He wants to communicate to someone that he’s having a hard time, but again his mental resources are consumed by trying to makes sense of the math and the words his teacher is saying. Finally, out of frustration, he crumples up his paper, throws his pencil on the floor, and jumps out of his seat. You can imagine how the situation unfolds from there.
Language modeling is a tool in which an adult provides an example of the exact words a child might want to use in a given situation. In the scenario described above, an adult aware of the child’s struggle might provide modeling of simple phrases that would help the child communicate his difficulty. A few choices might be:
“I need help.”
“I don’t understand.”
“This is too hard.”
“I need a break.”
These are phrases the child can learn and practice through direct instruction, but the language can and should also be modeled in the actual stressful settings where it is to be used. In the classroom, when the student demonstrates early signs of distress or confusion, the teacher or another adult can sit quietly with the student and model the language, “I need help.” (For some students, it may also be helpful to use a visual representation of these phrases, either with writing or pictures.) Children with typical language can access and express these ideas when they need to, but other children may need the model to provide them with the words in the moment. Often it is useful to model language without too much other prompting. Instead of, “Jonathan, if you need help, use your words to tell me. Say, ‘I need help,’ and then I can help you,” try simply modeling: “I need help,” and possibly repeating it a few times. This provides the child with a clear, salient example of the words he can use to help ease the situation.
Of course, language modeling is not a final solution but rather a means to an end. An adult will not always be available to prompt the struggling student with a model of what he should say. But language modeling gives the student guided practice. Repetition in relevant situations will help the child to become familiar and comfortable with such phrases so that they are easier and more automatic when he needs them again. Instead of having to search for words or try to create a message from scratch, children who have been provided with language modeling in the situation are more able to access and use these helpful words when needed. With language modeling, we may give the student tools to express himself so that he can communicate his needs and diffuse what might otherwise be a behaviorally difficult situation.
Anna Fredman, M.S., CCC-SLP
Certified Speech Language Pathologist
Anna Fredman is a licensed, certified Speech Language Pathologist. She received her Master of Science in speech language pathology from the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA and previously worked at the Monarch Center for Autism. She currently sees school-aged children and has also worked with toddlers through students 21 years old. Anna has specialized in therapy for individuals on the autism spectrum, with a special interest in high-functioning students focusing on social pragmatics and young children learning basic communication and social skills. She also addresses reading, expressive language skills, written expression, and articulation with her students.