How We Do It: Her Words, Not Ours

Two weeks ago, we wrote about how we familiarize ourselves with Diva’s talker and get comfortable with the concept of modeling. This week, I’m focusing on how we started modeling language — what we modeled, when we modeled. A lot of families and classrooms start with a few focus core words, like the year of core words. They choose 9-12 words to model for a month, rotating throughout the year. This can also be done by choosing 2-4 words per week. More, eat, play, want, those all tend to be really good starting words. This approach works for a lot of families. I’ve even recommended this approach for families. It builds familiarity with the system. It offers lots of options. It prevents you from getting stuck on the same 5 words and never moving forward. It’s a good approach.

It doesn’t work for us.

I’ll never forget a Linda Burkhart workshop where I asked about this, and whether we should choose focus words. She responded by reminding me that part of communication autonomy means that Diva gets to decide her first words. She gets to decide which words are important to her. Toddlers aren’t limited to 12-15 words we think are most important. Some of them choose really strange words to fall into their first 10 words, based off how they sound and what reaction they create. Diva needs the same opportunity. She needs all the words, and she needs to decide what’s powerful.

Still, that can be overwhelming. All the words? But we’re brand new! We’ve never done this before! Where do I start? Start by knowing that you will make so many mistakes in this process. Communication is messy. You will miss opportunities. You will accidentally speak over your child and move their hand from the board. You will guess wrong. You will forget the talker on the table when you’re in the bedroom. You will forget to charge it. And none of that is going to wreck your child’s communication for life. Start by doing the best you can right now, and knowing that you will keep growing.

When did we model? We chose one or two routines to observe and focus on modeling language. We started with snacks and meals, because the positioning is really good, access is easy, and both parents are there. We made sure she had her device all day long, but we took extra time to think about and pull in communication to these meals. After a few days, we started doing more during play time with her. Then, we focused on modeling whenever we were transitioning to a new place. This isn’t perfect, but we found that as we gained fluency in these routines, we started modeling at other times of the day very naturally. Without planning, without thinking, we started modeling her system all day long. And we started modeling a lot more things than a word of the week. Our lives are busy with attention split in 20 different ways at any given time, and this is what worked for us.

What did we model? We watched HER. We wanted to guess what words would matter to HER. Not our words. Not what we think matters. But what might matter to her. What objects is she looking towards? Reaching for? What are the other people in her life touching, playing with, watching right now? Does she need a way to request or comment on those objects? What is Diva’s body telling us? Is she smiling? Frowning? Does she appear frustrated, mad, or sad? Is she spitting that food out or munching on it happily? Does she ask for this thing again and again, might it be a favorite? What choices can we offer her — not choices of requests, but choices of things she may want to say? Linda referred to this as linguistic mapping — mapping language on to what a child’s body language and expressions may be telling us. Linguistic mapping is hands-down the most powerful thing that we have done for Diva. And her first words with her talker weren’t nouns, nor were they more, want, eat, play. They were “next” like “What’s next?” and “next song”. They were “mad” and “frustrated” and words to express her disapproval of what was happening around her. They were “go away” (first two word phrase).

We do model what we are saying and doing. The slowing down of our phrases and highlighting key words has helped with understanding and providing a rich vocabulary. It also automatically gives us content to model, since we tend to speak too much anyways. But it’s never been our focus. Our focus is always about what she might want to say. If we are modeling “STOP”, 97% of the times it is modeled are because she may want the swing to stop, may want us to stop, may want to leave the activity. Her talker isn’t a way for us to dictate what she must say and do in her life. It is her voice.  Hers. It is her way to control her world, express her feelings, and be the independent and sassy tween that she is.

To close, I’ll leave you with some examples of things that we may model during a short snack, hoping to showcase the way that we make this about her words (not ours) —

  • Do you want COOKIES or PUDDING?
  • I wonder if COOKIES are your FAVORITE.
  • That looks DELICIOUS.
  • I think you might be HAPPY or EXCITED.
  • You want MORE.
  • Your brother is LOUD. You DON’T LIKE.
  • This is MESSY and STICKY.
  • Do you NEED a NAPKIN?
  • Maybe it tastes SWEET.
  • I wonder if you want to EAT or DRINK right now.
  • You are FINISHED.
  • You look like you WANT to GO.
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