Many students with special needs have challenges with communication. Broken down basically, there can be issues with any of the following:
- Speech disorder – This can include articulation issues like not being able to pronounce the “th” sound; fluency issues like stuttering over words or phrases and/or a voice disorder where students have difficulty with pitch, loudness, resonance or duration.
- Language disorder – This can include phonology which involves patterns of speech sounds; semantics which includes the meanings of words and sentences, and/or pragmatics which involves combining the language components in functional and socially appropriate communication such as greeting a peer upon meeting or following rules such as taking turns when speaking.
- Hearing disorder – This can include deafness or hard of hard of hearing (hearing impaired), or a more complex auditory processing disorder where words are heard but not processed correctly. A student may have trouble differentiating the “ch” sound in choke vs. the “sh” sound in show, or they may have difficulty with auditory figure ground or the ability to tune out background sounds to hear the teacher speaking.
With all the changes in learning formats these past few years, such as an increase in online courses and modifications to onsite learning environments, many students are at risk of decreased performance because of these underlying communication challenges. Let’s look at 5 key strategies to help address these issues:
1. Reasonable Wait Time
For speech disorders such as not being understood or stuttering issues, be sure to include a reasonable wait time for a response from the student. This will reduce the stress of a timed response. You can also have alternative options for communication on hand. Low tech ewriters like a Boogie Board are a great tool for the student to communicate answers.
2. Articulation Skill Practice
Continue with articulation skill practice. If an option, a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) can work with a classroom teacher and/or design a home program using SuperDuper articulation tools that identify specific sounds and blends to reinforce.
3. Visual Reinforcement
Students with issues with pragmatic/social skills may have difficulty understanding non-verbal communication. This can be especially challenging while using smart phones or other devices. Interpreting the tone of email or text messages and “reading” facial cues of happy, sad, angry etc. may be more challenging. You may help bridge the gap by using visual reinforcements for cues, such as emoticons for written formats or physical supports during screen or phone time.
4. Closed Captioning
Depending on the level of impairment, some students with auditory issues may benefit from closed captioning. Several online platforms have the accessibility option to add this. Invest in a good headset for students with auditory discrimination issues. Students with auditory figure ground issues will need a quiet work environment away from background sounds and devices (like a washer/dryer or HVAC unit) that may distract focus and attention. Noise reduction headphones may also be helpful.
5. Develop Self-Regulation Skills
Students with speech and language challenges in general must put more effort into communication under normal circumstances. Whether it’s in person or virtual communication, it takes extra effort and can be fatiguing. Be sure to add in movement breaks, outdoor time, and/or create a sensory space to help support the development of self-regulation skills to reduce anxiety and stress.
Every child has the right to have a voice that is heard! For more information visit our website for additional tools to support language and communication skills.
Cecilia Cruse, MS, OTR/L has a BS degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Florida, and her Master’s degree in Education from Georgia State University. She is SIPT certified and has over 25 years’ experience in pediatrics with school-based services, acute care, and outpatient pediatric settings.
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