Tips for conversing with a kid who has expressive language difficulty
March 14, 2017 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Kindergarten aged child appears to have difficulty with expressive language, which makes it really hard to carry on a conversation with them. Assume the ball is rolling on evaluations; I want to know what I (as the adult) can do to grease the conversational wheels and maximize loving interactions.

The difficulties have been confirmed by multiple adults in multiple arenas of the child's life; they hamper interactions with both adults and peers. The two biggest issues are getting blocked for words and then abandoning the conversation mid-sentence, and difficulty generating a narrative in any context (imaginary, recent event, past event - nothing). Open ended questions such as "What's something fun that happened at school today?", "What did you work on at school today?", or even "What did you have for dinner?" are either ignored outright, receive one-word answers, or "uhhhh... I forget". A chain of specific questions to draw out details tends to generate annoyance. (Yes, I realize that feeling like you're being interrogated sucks, so here I am trying to break the pattern!) In a reversal of the usual pattern, a younger sibling does most of the talking in our family. The contrast is rather striking, though it's not an entirely fair comparison since the sibling is by far the most talkative of all of us.

So: A variety of evaluations are being scheduled, we will work with the school, we will pursue treatments as recommended. Once that's all done, I'm sure we'll get some suggestions from the SLPs as well.

My question is, in the short-term while all this is percolating, I'm looking for ideas that will help us communicate with each other and reduce frustration levels. It's hard to talk to a brick wall! It's hard when there's something you want to say and the words won't come out! I've caught a little voice in my head a couple of times, saying, "don't bother trying to start a conversation, it won't go anywhere anyway" and that CANNOT be the right answer. I feel like my kid is slipping away a little, because conversation is hard and it's easier to heed the siren call of legos and books. (Legos and books are awesome; we go to great lengths to provide ample time and space for both, and time and space to be alone. But not to the exclusion of *everything* else.)

I do a lot of reading aloud (though that isn't terribly interactive). I always try to engage when facts are shared with me, as this is one of the few contexts in which we get more than a few words at a time. I stay up to date on Pokemon, Star Wars, My Little Pony, and space. But it's still hard to keep a conversation going more than a round or two. The child does relatively little imaginative play, and with few words. It's hard to join in.

So - those of you who love people with expressive language difficulties, what can I do to facilitate conversation? What's worked well for you to maintain a close bond despite difficulty in talking? There's a really smart, really sweet kid in there who I love more than anything and want to stay in touch with. (Also if anyone wants to MeMail me encouraging success stories about their kid who got treatment and overcame this problem, that would be super...)

*Although things could always change, we currently have reason to believe these issues are language-related and not an underlying lack of ability to empathize or connect with people.
posted by telepanda to Education (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
How does he do with scripted situations, as in playing a game of Go Fish or listening to a knock-knock joke where there are specific words he is expected to say? Find something that involves him talking but not having to come up with a completely original thought and do that with him. Get a huge list of jokes and tell him one each day on the way home from school or right before dinner.
posted by soelo at 8:41 AM on March 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Here are some ideas from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association:

When your child starts a conversation, give your full attention whenever possible.

Make sure that you have your child's attention before you speak.

Acknowledge, encourage, and praise all attempts to speak. Show that you understand the word or phrase by fulfilling the request, if appropriate.

Pause after speaking. This gives your child a chance to continue the conversation.

Continue to build vocabulary. Introduce a new word and offer its definition, or use it in a context that is easily understood. This may be done in an exaggerated, humorous manner. "I think I will drive the vehicle to the store. I am too tired to walk."

Talk about spatial relationships (first, middle, and last; right and left) and opposites (up and down; on and off).

Offer a description or clues, and have your child identify what you are describing: "We use it to sweep the floor" (a broom). "It is cold, sweet, and good for dessert. I like strawberry" (ice cream).

Work on forming and explaining categories. Identify the thing that does not belong in a group of similar objects: "A shoe does not belong with an apple and an orange because you can't eat it; it is not round; it is not a fruit."

Help your child follow two- and three-step directions: "Go to your room, and bring me your book."

Encourage your child to give directions. Follow his or her directions as he or she explains how to build a tower of blocks.

Play games with your child such as "house." Exchange roles in the family, with your pretending to be the child. Talk about the different rooms and furnishings in the house.

The television also can serve as a valuable tool. Talk about what the child is watching. Have him or her guess what might happen next. Talk about the characters. Are they happy or sad? Ask your child to tell you what has happened in the story. Act out a scene together, and make up a different ending.

Take advantage of daily activities. For example, while in the kitchen, encourage your child to name the utensils needed. Discuss the foods on the menu, their color, texture, and taste. Where does the food come from? Which foods do you like? Which do you dislike? Who will clean up? Emphasize the use of prepositions by asking him or her to put the napkin on the table, in your lap, or under the spoon. Identify who the napkin belongs to: "It is my napkin." "It is Daddy's." "It is John's."

While shopping for groceries, discuss what you will buy, how many you need, and what you will make. Discuss the size (large or small), shape (long, round, square), and weight (heavy or light) of the packages.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:15 AM on March 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

I was speech delayed too! Being read too really helps: you're building that interior vocabulary. My speech pathologist did this with my parents and it made a big difference if this helps:

We worked on communicating in different ways. One was drawing - I'd make a picture to describe something and then explain it out loud. Having it there in front of me helped piece out the words, and when I didn't have them in my mouth, still let me express things I otherwise couldn't.

I also learned simple ASL (my father is HoH so this wasn't difficult for them.) Communicating with my hands, especially for short, declarative meanings, was so much more "there" than spoken words. And it helped my parents understand me better. I could sort of save up spoken language for when I really needed it, is how it helped at the time.

We also did a lot of play acting. For whatever reason those open ended questions like "what did you do at school today?" just paralyzed me. But being asked to guess the next page of a story, or how a character felt (even when I knew the story already) got the words out of me. We also read aloud and memorized joke books! I also enjoyed describing my mother's cooking. It was all short words ("next?" "Chicken.") But having a concrete anchor for thinking through procedural vocabulary helped me apply that to the more open ended statements. (What did I do at school? Circle time. Blocks. Paint.)

We also had a lot of snuggle time and silent play time. I felt close to them even though my internal world was shut off.

I know hearing "and just time!" is really frustrating; I'm not advocating staying away from professional help and I can hear how much you love your child and want to communicate with them. But it was also time for me. I had the words, they just weren't there, some due to speech delay and some due to anxiety/shyness. But as time went on all those words I knew from reading and being talked to and listened to and experience a just bubbled over and now I don't shut up. So best of luck to you and your future chatterbox. :)
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 9:17 AM on March 14, 2017 [10 favorites]

Open ended questions such as "What's something fun that happened at school today?

you would know if this were the issue, most likely, but to a kid of a certain type this is the "when did you stop beating your wife" of questions assuming unfounded and unfair premises. as in, if this kid wants nothing more than to be left alone to read their books, it is very possible that nothing fun happened in school that day or any other day. if it's an impossible question, they will probably ignore it or offer an "I don't know" rather than try to explain.

I am massively overidentifying here so please do not take this as criticism of anybody's parenting or interaction techniques, just suggestions of how differently the kid may view it. to me as a young and uncommunicative child, I could not even begin to respond to someone trying to enter into or ask about my imaginary landscape. didn't mean I didn't have one, but the experience was so private by every definition I understood that I could not begin to react to the outside approach in a way an adult would, I guess, have expected. "I don't know" is what I said when I was too young to articulate a continous stream of pompous outrage at the very idea of being questioned about my private life. my mother would probably have said in retrospect that this was a time to be treasured as once past, it will not come again.

anyhow, can you read in company with the kid without talking to them, so that they have the communal, familial experience of togetherness without being taken out of their experience? maybe you already do. I only suggest it because think it's worth something to associate reading, if they love reading, with safety and tolerance and company, so that they learn they can be autonomous and have their own kind of fun without necessarily being alone.

final thing, I hesitate to say because if it sounds like criticism it won't be useful and I don't mean to criticize. but kids who are smart and want to play by themselves and not talk are usually very very aware that people think there's something wrong with them for not talking enough. Whatever you can do to make the message "I like you and find you so interesting that I want to spend all kinds of time with you" instead of "you never talk, what's your deal," it will help.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:23 AM on March 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

My 5 year frequently gets "blocked for words" mid-sentence. It's not a stutter, but more like a skipping record before she gets to the meat of her sentence. And that record can skip many, many times. I try to give her the conversational space to let it out - and that can be a while, but I try not to act like I am looking over her waiting for an answer, but also indicate that she hasn't lost my attention. I notice that most adults and kids don't give her that space to get it out - they either try to fill in the words for her or ask her more questions, or they indicate their impatience with body language. But she will finish the sentence if she is has the space to. She was recently evaluated by a SLP and the SLP confirmed to me that was a good tactic. I know you don't want to dull your younger child's enthusiasm and capacity for speech, but this is probably a good time to teach some conversational manners, ie, let other people finish their sentences before the little one starts in with their thoughts. I think there is a way to do this so you are not neglecting the conversational needs of each one, but it may be less chatty and freewheeling for a while. Hope that helps!
posted by stowaway at 9:26 AM on March 14, 2017

Reading can be more interactive, if your child responds to it/doesn't feel threatened/overwhelmed/shut down by it. "What do you think happens next?" "What do you think Billy is feeling?" "What's the prettiest thing on this page?"
posted by praemunire at 9:32 AM on March 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you to everyone who has responded thus far. Hew are a few responses and clarifications to things that have come up.

I read to him every day. I've heard many people say that they didn't want to read independently because they were afraid their parents would stop reading to them, so I tell him frequently that I'll keep reading to him for as long as he wants, and then we laugh about how ridiculous it would be if mom stopped reading to him just because he could read his own books.

I try to give her the conversational space to let it out - and that can be a while, but I try not to act like I am looking over her waiting for an answer, but also indicate that she hasn't lost my attention. I notice that most adults and kids don't give her that space to get it out - they either try to fill in the words for her or ask her more questions, or they indicate their impatience with body language. But she will finish the sentence if she is has the space to.

Oh man, this. I subconsciously trained myself to do this (even though it's really hard to wait out a 30- or 45-second block!) and the teachers at his tiny Montessori kindergarten have learned to do the same thing. I'm still working on getting Dad to be more conscious of it. But I don't think his peers have that same patience, and it's definitely something I think the teachers at the public school he'll attend next year need to be aware of. Sometimes he makes it through the block and we carry on as though nothing happened; sometimes he just disengages and doesn't want to talk anymore.

Open ended questions such as "What's something fun that happened at school today?

you would know if this were the issue, most likely, but to a kid of a certain type this is the "when did you stop beating your wife" of questions assuming unfounded and unfair premises. as in, if this kid wants nothing more than to be left alone to read their books, it is very possible that nothing fun happened in school that day or any other day.

I mean, this is part of where my frustration lies. He spends a lot of time at school. It's an obvious thing to ask about and it's important to me to know how he thinks things are going. I've tried millions of angles on asking - what did you work on; did anything frustrating happen; did you work on math today? Cool, what kind? What did you play at the playground? and on and on. If anybody has a script that works better with "this kind of kid", I'll adopt it in a heartbeat.

Whatever you can do to make the message "I like you and find you so interesting that I want to spend all kinds of time with you" instead of "you never talk, what's your deal," it will help.

Replace "Whatever you can do" with "What can I do?" and you have an excellent summary of why I made this Ask.
posted by telepanda at 10:05 AM on March 14, 2017

Also! In case it wasn't clear, the examples of how-was-school questions are all from different days! I'm not a monster :). Finally, lest we get derailed by how was school, the general issue persists in all contexts. There is nothing about which he elaborates.
posted by telepanda at 10:12 AM on March 14, 2017

My three year old is a chatter mouth, but completely shuts down if I ask "what did you do in school today" or "did you have fun today?" even though these are really obvious/easy questions. Recently, I've started coming up with silly prompts after I pick him up from preschool. "So, I heard that you rode a hippopotamus at recess." "What did you have for lunch today? Was it... boogers??" Usually I get a "NOOOOOOO!" followed by at least some conversation that may or may not be relevant. It's worth a shot.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 10:12 AM on March 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

What a good and thoughtful parent you are. :)

'What did you do today' questions are really hard. Imagine if your kid asked you that every day (eventually they get old enough that they might!) and you'll find that it's actually not the best conversation starter. Maybe try to get your updates from teachers and allow yourself to consciously set that topic aside for a little while.

I wonder if this is a child who would enjoy charades and/or pictionary? We play a family version of pictionary with a kid this age - mom tells kid a thing, kid draws, dad has to guess. Then kid tells dad a thing, dad draws, mom has to guess. It's really fun and allows both talking and expression in non-verbal ways.

We also do choose-your-own-adventure storytelling instead of books sometimes - I tell the story and kid gets to say what the protagonist should do at lots of critical junctures along the way.
posted by Ausamor at 10:15 AM on March 14, 2017

With my uncommunicative child, what helped re: school day conversations was requesting that the teachers write just a couple sentences about what he did during the day so I could refer to it when having conversations with him. Sometimes it would just be a couple words, like one time I remember it was "Josie's share" and just saying, "What did Josie bring to share today?" gave me almost a half hour of conversation about Josie's lizard and mom, did you know lizards x, y, z? Mom, did you know Josie has another lizard at home? Mom, can we go to the zoo and look at more lizards?

Since he goes to a Montessori school, you're likely to get the teachers to help out with this. It's a small ask, and one I'm sure they'll be happy to help with.

We also started to take turns telling a story. I would start, dad would go next, then the kid. He started a little unsure, but it didn't take long for it to be a really big success. I think what made it so successful was that nothing was off limits; he could be silly or serious or ridiculous or fact-based, sometimes all in one story. He could also just give us one word sentences! That was fine!

It was really fun, especially at bedtime, and we got a pretty good glimpse of his inner world. It was a cool place; not surprising that most of his teachers throughout school (he's now a college sophomore) commented (in a good way!) on his unusual way of looking at a thing (task, idea, etc.).
posted by cooker girl at 10:21 AM on March 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

You are a wonderful parent!

As to the "How was your day?" question, it may help to phrase it so you're giving the child limited choices with contextual and visual clues. If they only have to recall two things while forming a mental picture, it can decrease their cognitive load. Decreased cognitive load means they can devote brainpower into responding which in turn helps build those neural superhighways, thus making the ability to respond more easily deeply ingrained.

For example, ask "Did you play on the red swings or soccer on the field today?" or "Did you build with the yellow stacking blocks or draw pictures with crayons?"

This helps the kid more easily form a mental picture of two things without relying on working memory or the language to create a response. This way, you're giving him the words and phrases he might want to use and the more frequently you use this script, the more phrases will become automatic for him.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 10:45 AM on March 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

How does he do with verbal games? My six year old loves 20 questions. It has a really structured way of enforcing some back and forth that might help. For more expressive words you could try something like mad libs (even very informally by starting sentences and letting him finish them with silliness.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:57 AM on March 14, 2017

My child was reserved when he was little, had little interest in answering 'how was school today?' type questions. He became a little more interactively responsive when I changed my questions up to ask questions that were both limited and easy for him to answer succinctly - 'Tell me one thing that made you feel happy today', 'If you could turn into an animal would you rather be a wombat or a caterpillar?.. no kidding? That's interesting! Why a wombat?', 'Which book would you like to read at snuggle time tonight?', that sort of thing. When he was able to read I'd ask him to help me cook by reading off ingredients/directions to me.

I don't know if that will be helpful for you, but it helped my kid over the hump. Best of luck.
posted by mcbeth at 11:04 AM on March 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

my son can be like this, not replying, stopping mid sentence, in his own world. He is now 8 and this has been a frustration for me for a long time. We tried a lot of tactics, most failed after a while.
However, there are some things that I noticed through the years that work better but not always and not consistently.

The first one works most often - I ask him what so-and-so did today, and he can tell me quite fluently what the other kid did in class today and in a round-about way I hear what he himself did.

Some days, I tell him what I did, in all detail, at work. Then I ask so and how about you? And sometimes he replies with what he did and sometimes asks about some aspect of what I narrated.

Sometimes we just talk about why I ask. I ask him so what did you do today? and he remains silent. I tell him I would like to know because we did not see each other all day and explain that I also ask dad how was his day and so it seems only fair to ask you as well, etc. Sometimes this leads into conversation. Sometimes not.

Lately, I simply say do you want me to ask how your day was? and if he says no (about 3 times out of 5) I say ok and leave it. I do this because I had stopped with asking for some weeks, as I found it so frustrating to get no reply. And then suddenly he accused me full of anger one day that I no longer cared because I did not ask now for two weeks how it was in school. And here was me thinking he had not even heard me.
posted by 15L06 at 11:23 AM on March 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

My son does not have these issues, but we've had a ritual for a while that I wonder if might work for you guys. As part of our bedtime routine, we do "questions", where I ask the same three or four questions to him every single night. What was your favorite part of your day, what was something kind you did today, did any part of your body hurt today, what was something you wished would happen but didn't... Because the questions are predictable, sometimes my son will go for a few weeks with the same answers. Which is a little frustrating for me, but it still seems important for my kid, because he complains if we don't do it. And then sometimes I'm surprised and get completely different answers. I wonder if something similarly ritualized might work with your son; he will be able to use a rote answer if he wants or expand if he chooses.

(Sometimes my son also asks -me- questions back, and that's good fun!)
posted by wyzewoman at 11:34 AM on March 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Chiming in again to say that open-ended questions can be counter-productive, especially if you are doing this during a transition time (such as on the way home from school). My kid basically won't answer those questions and just shuts down further. She will answer questions like "What was for snack today?" and "Did you get enough outdoor time today?" With those kinds of questions I get answers and sometimes they lead to more conversation. I often pretend I misheard and say, "Snails? For snack? That sounds so gross. Were they sweet or salty?" and that sort of play works well for getting her out of her shell. Adults use the "how was your day" spiel to reconnect at the end of the day, children use play.
posted by stowaway at 1:03 PM on March 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Do you access to Art or Music Therapy or even art lessons of some kind for this kiddo? Maybe art lessons or even just doing something that is heavily NOT language based together would be helpful for building the connection between you, and as a bonus building new brain circuits. Finding a 'less language focused' activity (music? something outdoors? geocaching? cooking together?) might give your kiddo a chance to really shine, while the language evaluations and skills building is happening. Ideally this activity is one where failure is rare or at least easy to succeed in, to help reduce his and your frustration.
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 2:42 PM on March 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

What worked with our spectrum-y, language delayed kid at that age was to carry a small white board with us everywhere and draw "comic strips" showing what he had done or will be doing that day. That way he had a visual representation of the passage of time, sequence of activities, etc. Initially we drew comic strips of things we had done together (e.g. museum trip), later we made blank strips and collaborated on drawing what he had done at school. Eventually we were able to draw and talk about what we were *going* to do in the future, and show changes in scheduled activities.

Now said kid is nine and literally never stops chatting. I remember oh so vividly how frustrating it was for both of us while his language was delayed, hang in there!
posted by Wavelet at 4:18 PM on March 14, 2017

Our kids sound kind of similar, and I'm reading the comments for suggestions for my own quite avidly. Mine is quite verbal but rarely opens up about anything other than facts - we have no idea what goes on in his day most of the time, no idea what his emotions or innermost thoughts are. In his case it's probably not expressive language delay but some of the techniques might still be applicable, especially #2.

1. Regarding the "what did you do today" issue, I've found some success in asking very simple factual questions that he knows to expect (i.e., I ask the same ones every day) and have a clear answer. Things like "did you have burgers for lunch again?" or "did you have circle time today?" or "was [educator name] there today?" Eventually you can move beyond yes/no versions of that question but at the start I'd just do yes/no for a while. My son struggles a lot with open-ended things or anything requiring reporting on emotion, but sometimes if I can get him going with a fact-based question it will turn into more of a conversation from there - e.g. going from what they had for lunch, to what kinds of things taste good, to what silly thing some other kid did at lunch, etc. Sometimes this happens. I would say only about 20% of the time, the rest of the time it peters out after he answers the question, but 20% is better than nothing and he seems to like having some fact-based questions to answer. I get the sense sometimes that he would like to share his day with us but has no idea how, and the very specific questions help.

2. I have also found that I get the most communication in contexts where there is a lot of expected silence and we're not looking at each other. So, while playing with legos (also very popular here). Or when I get home from work I try to just cuddle with him in silence on his bed for about 10 minutes. Often it is 10 minutes of pure silence. Sometimes the silence will let him find the space to ask a question or make an observation. It comes out ever so slowly but I find that my own impatience is lessened if I'm just laying there holding him at the same time. Of course, mine is a total cuddler and he seems to really crave contact because he avoids it completely from everyone else in the world, so this might not work with yours. But perhaps there is something similar. It's difficult for us because we too have a younger kid who also wants lots of attention at the end of the day (and he wants loud fun noisy attention) but it's been well worth it to make that space. I've also found that he's more talkative later if we've had that quiet time beforehand.

Good luck, this is hard.
posted by forza at 6:53 PM on March 14, 2017

If anybody has a script that works better with "this kind of kid", I'll adopt it in a heartbeat.

Whatever you can do to make the message "I like you and find you so interesting that I want to spend all kinds of time with you" instead of "you never talk, what's your deal," it will help.

Replace "Whatever you can do" with "What can I do?" and you have an excellent summary of why I made this Ask.

totally serious about not meaning to be critical and I hope that saying that didn't come over as insincere! a last thought:

- is this a kid who cares a lot about being right, or about not being wrong? only a guess and I know it might not apply at all. but there's a frustration that comes from believing a question has a right answer but you don't know it. and the more open-ended a question, the more chances to be wrong and the fewer clues they have about what you're looking for, the more chances for failure.

(sorry if this is dumb but do you ever play twenty questions style games with him where he's actually restricted to only short or yes/no answers? & he's the one with the secret right answer and other people are the ones making wrong guesses? maybe that would unlock something in some counterintuitive kind of way? )
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:29 PM on March 14, 2017

If anybody has a script that works better with "this kind of kid", I'll adopt it in a heartbeat.

"Or" questions to reduce cognitive load are the answer to this. "Did you have art class in the basement or music with the music cart today?" "Did you sit in a circle or stay at your desk during music class?" "Did you play with legos or dolls?" Etc.

Try doing some echoing/expanding if Kid gives two or three word answers.

"You played with Legos?"
"Did you build a car or a house?"
"You built a rocket with Legos today! Did Jane build the rocket with you or did you play by yourself?"
"You and Jane built a rocket out of Legos together during free play! Woooow! That's amazing! Last week, you and Jane were building houses! Your civilization has reached the stars!"

Also try describing pictures together! Like sports photos or drawings or whatever. "The woman in the white shirt is jumping in the air with the ball." Eventually you cover the photo and ask questions, and progress Kid from answers like "jumping" to "the girl, she had the ball and she was up, jumping."
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:48 AM on March 15, 2017

Also, hmm, "there is nothing about which he elaborates."

Can Kid sequence? Like, tell you what happened in the episode of My Little Pony he just watched in the form of "Um, the one pony, the purple pony, he went to the forest and there was a witch." If not, I would do a lot of sequence modeling.

-Books: pausing every so often to summarize the plot or describe an illustration. "The caterpillar has already eaten FIVE apples and then he ate SEVEN pears!! Is he going to keep eating?"
Movies/TV: same
Your lives- sequence out loud as you do stuff, tell Kid about what they did yesterday like a story, how it was different than today. "This morning we're eating oatmeal for breakfast. Yesterday we ate yogurt because we ran out of oatmeal. I forgot to buy it so we didn't have any. I went to the store while you were at school. I bought oatmeal and now we're eating it." Model recall, sequences, alternate phrasings ("ran out" and "didn't have any").
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:01 AM on March 15, 2017

Also ain't nothing stopping you from playing next to or near him with your own legos while narrating what the legos are doing! That's a perfectly good intervention for right now.

Also you are good. You are doing good.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:05 AM on March 15, 2017

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