In my work, I noted that when a child’s communication skills got better, so did their ability to regulate. They were able to listen better, sit still longer and cope with frustration.
The relationship that I saw between self-regulation and communication intrigued me. I wanted to fully understand it so that I could use my expertise as a communication specialist to help children develop self-regulation. When I returned to school to seek a Ph.D., I found that my observations were confirmed by the research I conducted.
Three to five-year-old children at social risk with strong expressive communication skills more often followed their preschool teachers’ directions and had fewer behavior problems in the classroom. In my work consulting and training, I provide practical communication strategies to help young children at social risk to develop self-regulation.
Individuals on the autism spectrum may have many functional communication skills, yet lack the ability to understand and use words that describe internal states. These words describe the important aspects of ourselves and others that may not be readily discernable (Bang, Burns, & Nadig, 2012).
The foundation for the ability to cope with frustration, resist the urge to react explosively, and use words as part of progressively more mature behavior schemes is self-awareness. How is my body feeling? What am I thinking? What emotions am I experiencing? And how do these internal states promote or interfere with what I am trying to accomplish?
Knowledge and use of words that convey the internal state of ourselves as well as others can be taught and can be learned by individuals with autism. They can be a bridge to connection with others and awareness of self. In my work consulting with organizations and providing workshops, I show parents and teachers how to help establish these important aspects of communication.
New and challenging school assignments or work projects can be overwhelming for an individual with a limited attention span and high activity level. Language can provide a web of organization to develop a plan, follow through on the plan, think about how well it worked, and make revisions (Kennedy, Krause, & O’Brien, 2014). In my work consulting with organizations and providing workshops, I show parents and teachers how to help individuals organize and focus through communication strategies.
Communication skills that develop during the preschool years form the foundation for literacy (Hart and Risley, 1995). Early communication skills also form the foundation for self-regulation. The ability of young children to understand what is said to them, express themselves in words, and know what tone of language the situation requires makes a unique and important contribution. Language enables them to develop organization and focus and to understand and manage emotions (e.g., Long, Gurka, and Blackman, 2008). Young children’s knowledge and use of words that describe their internal state and the internal state of others is particularly important. Self-awareness of our own internal state makes it possible to adjust it when needed so that it is compatible with achieving our goals. Awareness of the internal state of others promotes respect as well as empathy. I have developed a program to help children learn the knowledge and use of internal state words. I also provide guidance and support to teachers and parents in helping young children to strengthen every aspect of their communication skills.
Young children are being introduced to Ipads, smart phones, and videos that claim to strengthen their brains. Yet the research tells us that it is connection with trusted caregivers that builds networks of neurons for a lifetime of success (Eigsti, 2004). Within the safety and security of their parents’ love, babies, toddlers, and preschoolers learn to communicate their wants and needs. Asking questions and making comments enables them to explore their world. These language skills form the foundation for literacy as well as self-regulation. I provide parents with information and practice to use language with their child that builds their child’s language. Helping children to acquire the communication skills that promote self-awareness (Carlson, Mandell, and Williams, 2004) requires that parents be aware of their own internal states as well as the internal state of their child. It also requires that they use words often with their child to describe perception (e.g., hear, see), physical states (e.g., hungry, tired), will and ability (e.g., can, want), emotions (e.g., sad, laugh), states of mind (e.g., think, know), and moral judgment/obligation (e.g., have to, naughty). My work with parents provides the opportunity to use the words that both reflect and build self-awareness.
Teachers are often told that it is important for them to talk to children, because this builds children’s communication skills. In order to maximize opportunities to foster children’s language, teachers need to know how to model, imitate, and expand what children say to them. These types of language exchanges are most effective in building children’s language. Building turn taking in teacher-child communication, providing information about what the child is focusing on, and introducing new vocabulary as part of novel experiences are other language “scaffolds” or supports that can make a positive difference in children’s communication skills. Teachers also need opportunities to practice these techniques, so that they will be able to use them automatically while they are changing a diaper, serving lunch, etc. The teacher training I provide is built on a foundation of research on language development, as well as principles of adult language learning.
Behavior problems that persist into the elementary school years often become more significant and may be diagnosed as EBD (emotional/behavioral disorder). Research involving more than a thousand children with EBD found that over 800 children (80%) had communication skills that were below average. Almost 500 children (50%) were found to have an undiagnosed language disorder (Hollo, Wehby, & Oliver, 2014).
Difficulties with communication can be an important contributor to emotional/behavioral challenges, yet remain undetected. Providing support for individuals with EBD to develop language that is appropriately assertive offers an alternative to acting out. Encouraging words that calm, soothe, and organize give children a tangible means to develop more mature patterns of behavior. This language can be learned by teachers, parents, and therapists through my consultations and trainings.