Reluctant Communicators- When Plan A doesn’t work

In all of my blog posts so far, I’ve talked about how wonderful the power of communication is…I mean, who doesn’t love to chat?! Who doesn’t want to tell a story, give an opinion, ask a question…?!

Well, actually quite a number of children with communication difficulties! I’m sure we have all experienced working with children who don’t have that burning desire to communicate (and how many of us can relate to that feeling ourselves, when we’re running on empty and the caffeine has worn off?!)

Children with complex needs often have fantastically supportive adults around them who can read what they want or need…This telepathy can be a useful skill but the problem is, sometimes our children no longer feel the need to communicate. We see them glance at the telly so we turn it on. Maybe they look a little rosy cheeked, so we take their jumper off. It’s 11am so they are probably hungry, let’s give them a yoghurt…

This pre-empting can often cause one of two problems:
1. The child gets frustrated at not having a choice in what happens to them, resulting in communication through behaviour,
2. The child becomes passive. They have learned that things happen regardless of how they think or feel. Communication seems to have no real value.

Today I’m going to focus on child number 2. How do we motivate a passive child? How do we find a way to develop intentional communication?

Plan A doesn’t always work. I’ve been there before; I’ve tried something that I think is guaranteed to work and then I am baffled when it doesn’t. So I now have a selection of back-up plans- Plans A, B and C!

PLAN A- Find a motivator… and then stop

Before I start working with any child, I always like to find out from class staff or family what the child is interested in…What really floats their boat!

And I always bring along my trusty tool kit of motivators which includes all of the usual things that SaLTs cram into their handbags- bubbles, a ball, an iPad filled with pre-stored music (theme tunes, chart hits), chocolate buttons, a cause and effect type toy, etc, etc! As you can imagine, my work bag is pretty big…!

Having a strong motivator provides the child with a reason to communicate. But the catalyst for communication really occurs when we suddenly stop that motivational activity- when we put the lid on the bubbles or pause the music.

And then we wait.

We wait for the child to indicate that they want more of this activity. This might be through a vocalisation or grasping for the object. Or it might be something as simple as making direct eye-contact.

After the child has initiated communication through some means,  I then like to introduce the symbol for the word ‘more’. I model its meaning and allow the child to become familiar with using the symbol as I frequently pause their motivational activity.

Sometimes I record ‘more’ on a Big Mack switch if the child needs more auditory reinforcement.

‘More’ is always a powerful word to start with when working with a reluctant communicator…and then once they’ve mastered ‘more’, you can introduce the symbol for ‘stop’ to increase their control of the activity!

PLAN B- The red herring


Choice-making is often a great starting point for communication. But it’s not quite as simple as holding up 2 toys from which a child can make a choice.

Think of it this way- If you present a child with 2 highly motivating activities to choose from, the chances are that the child might think, “Both of these activities are fun…I don’t care which one we do!”

The child appears passive because they know they will get to play with something that they like regardless of what they do.

This is why I like to introduce a red herring-something that the child is disinterested in. I try to find the most boring thing possible, like a paper towel or a sock.

The child might think you are crazy, but they quickly realise that they better make a choice before they end up playing with a sock!

Once you have established some definite choice-making, you can gradually phase out the red herring and develop choice boards or simple choice pages on low or high-tech AAC devices.

The image below is a template for a Go Talk 4, looking at choice making when singing nursery rhymes, also incorporating ‘more’ and ‘finished’.

PLAN C- Creative silliness

I used to work with a child who was a bit of a puzzle to me. I tried every possible motivator I could think of, but nothing seemed to interest him.

One morning, I was supporting him in his classroom during an art activity. Whilst walking across the classroom to get some coloured card, I tripped- a full on, comedy fall, with my arms waving above me!

Then I heard a giggle.

I looked up and my ‘hard-to-motivate’ child was grinning at me! Yes!!! I’d found something that he liked!! Some of the children who we typically find difficult to motivate simply don’t find communication fun…And it’s our job to show them just how fun it can be!

So I made some ‘Simon Says’ style eye pointing boards with 4 symbols. He immediately loved this activity, enjoying the element of control by making me pretend to sleep, dance, cry or fall!

Children love a bit of creative silliness! ‘Simon Says’ is just one example but basically the sillier the better!

Another fun example is a game of ‘dress up’- you can get the children to choose an item of clothing and then who they want to wear it. You can even introduce symbols such as ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’ to expand on the communication, making comments as well as requests.


The important thing to remember is that once a child starts to demonstrate intentional communication as a result of Plans A, B or C (or other variations…!), build on that! They are demonstrating that yes, they DO want to communicate but they need reasons to do so. Let’s not be so quick to jump in, assuming the child’s wants and needs. Let’s give them a little time and the vocabulary to take back some control!



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A Speech and Language Therapist in education settings for almost 10 years with a passion for writing.

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