Have you ever had a one-sided conversation?
You know the type- one of those awkward interactions in which you can end up in one of two roles; 1. The person who is being talked at or 2. The person who ends up doing most of the talking due to little response from the communication partner. Both roles are uncomfortable and don’t make for a particularly good conversation!
I like to think of a conversation like throwing a ball- one person throws something out (“Hi”), the other person catches it and responds by returning the ball (“How are you?”). The more passes of the ball, the better the game! In other words, the more communication exchanges, the better the conversation!
Children who use alternative forms of communication (AAC) such as voice output communication aids or communication books can find the idea of taking turns within conversation challenging for a number of reasons. These are some of the most common problems that I see:
1. Formulating a message takes longer so by the time the child using AAC has done this, the conversation may have moved on to a different topic,
2. Because formulating a message does take longer, the child might focus on forming their message rather than listening to what the other person is saying,
3. The child struggles to maintain a conversation because it is time-consuming and effortful.
So how do we address the all important social skill of turn-taking when a child using AAC has these extra challenges to face? I’m trying to make this series of blog posts as practical as possible, so let’s discuss a few ideas!
‘Scaffolding’ basically means providing a safe structure for a child to develop new skills, by demonstrating and prompting when necessary. It’s providing a ‘helping hand’ until the child can do it by themselves.
Some children who use AAC are unsure of how to continue a conversation- they may struggle to ask questions, make comments or ‘chip in’ with their own stories. You may initially need to scaffold this, modelling how to ask relevant questions or perhaps prompting the child to make a comment. Think about how you provide these prompts- it may initially be indirect (e.g. “I wonder has anyone else seen the new Fantastic Beasts film?”) moving towards a direct prompt if needed (“You can ask a question about the film using your question page”).
It’s important to practice these skills in everyday, natural situations. Scaffolds can gradually be phased out as the child begins to independently further a conversation. This quote from Vygotsky sums up the process of scaffolding quite nicely- “What a child can do with assistance today, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow”.
Never underestimate the power of ‘the pause’! Conversations can be so fast-paced that we need to consider our own communication style when chatting with those who use AAC. By simply slowing things down and pausing, we leave space for the child who uses AAC to enter the conversation. This also demonstrates that we are interested in their ideas and opinions too!
* Fringe Vocabulary
In most of my blog posts, I’ve highlighted the importance of ‘core vocabulary’- the words that we use again and again in multiple settings. However, much of our everyday conversation also includes what we call ‘fringe vocabulary’- specific topic based words such as activities, people, food, animals, etc. If core vocabulary is the bread for a sandwich, fringe vocabulary is the filling!
It’s important that these words are quick and easy to access during conversations so that the child can jump in when they need to. We need to think of how/where to store them in a communication book/device. For example, I made a ‘Hot Gossip’ page for a teenage girl who I work with so that she has quick access to words and phrases that she uses frequently when interacting with her peers. Having a ‘Quick Chat’ page or a page related to a child’s interests can be both a motivational and quick way to find ways to further a conversation.
* Teaching peers to be good communication partners
A child who uses AAC has lots to learn and many skills to constantly think about…but equally, those around them need to learn how to be good communication partners! Teaching and modelling to the child’s peers ways which they can include their friend in conversations is vital. It might be encouraging them to stop and ask their friend a question such as “What do you think?” or perhaps slowing down the pace of conversation so that topics don’t change rapidly… Practicing these skills together can support both the person using AAC and their friends.
* Start small!
It can be challenging for a child who uses AAC to develop their conversational skills in a large group such as a busy classroom or a chatty friendship group. You might want to start by working on these skills with one peer- perhaps a friend who the child has a common interest with. You can monitor how many communication exchanges occur during these interactions. It might initially be just one exchange e.g Friend: “I went to the cinema last night”, Child using AAC: “That’s cool”. As the exchanges increase, the child may become more confident to use these skills with a gradually increasing circle of friends. Starting with small, successful interactions can be encouraging, increasing the child’s confidence and skills in a safe, supportive environment.
It’s worth remembering that many children (and also many adults…!) find turn-taking challenging! There may be times that the child doesn’t want to enter into a conversation. There may also be times when they dominate the conversation! Both of these options are fine and perfectly normal. It’s just a matter of equipping the child with the skills and the confidence to enjoy having conversations with those around them. After all, isn’t that why we meet a friend for coffee or phone someone for a chat when we’re feeling low? A good conversation is one of the best feelings! Let’s ensure our children who use AAC get to experience this too!