Improving Your Child’s Social Communication

byRuthie Dearson, M.A., CCC-SLP

Social Communication… Pragmatics… you may have heard these terms before but what do they really mean? What are the challenges for children with pragmatic language deficits? What can you do to support your child and help improve his/her social communication?

Pragmatics, or social communication, refers to the rules that govern the use of language in context (Bates, 1976), or, more simply put, knowing when to say what to whom and how much (Hymes, 1971). Some children speak clearly, use long, complex sentences with correct grammar, can participate in conversation, but may still have a communication problem if they have not mastered the rules for social communication.

Three major communication skills are involved in pragmatics:

  1. The ability to use language for a variety of purposes such as greeting, informing, demanding, promising, requesting, and questioning.
  2. The ability to change language to match the needs of the listener or the situation such as talking differently to a baby than an adult, giving background information to a listener who is unfamiliar with the topic or story, speaking differently in the classroom versus the playground.
  3. The ability to follow established rules for conversations and storytelling, such as taking turns in conversation, introducing topics of conversation, staying on topic, rephrasing when misunderstood, using and understanding verbal and nonverbal signals, knowing how close to stand to someone when speaking, and using facial expressions and eye contact.

Although these rules vary across cultures and within cultures, being a competent social communicator requires you to understand the rules of social engagement related to your communication partner.

Some signs of pragmatic problems are:

  • Saying inappropriate or unrelated things during conversations
  • Telling stories in a disorganized way
  • Having little variety in language use

It is not unusual for children to have some problems with pragmatics occasionally or in a few situations as they are developing their language skills; however, if challenges with social communication seem inappropriate for a child’s age, or seem to occur frequently, a pragmatic language disorder may exist.

Parents and teachers can help children use language appropriately in social settings and in natural contexts. The following are some tips and ideas you may find helpful:

  • Use your child’s natural environment to increase the use of different language functions.
  • Practice greetings at the beginning of the day when your child wakes up, encourage your child to initiate greeting other members of the family either in the morning or when someone comes home at the end of the day.
  • When your child has friends over for playdates, have your child ask his/her friends what they would like for snacks.
  • At school, children can be encouraged to request items necessary for a project, game, or activity.

Another aspect of pragmatic language skills is a person’s ability to adapt his/her use of language to the target audience. To practice this skill:

  • Set up role playing games where your child must explain to different people how to do things.
  • Give examples for your child so that he/she understands the differences.
  • Show him/her how you would explain the game of hide-and-seek to a young child versus an adult.
  • Ask your child to pay attention to your pitch and rate of speech when you speak to a young child versus an adult as well as the simplicity/complexity of language used.
  • Even if your child isn’t able to make these explanations yet, talking about the different ways we speak to different people will be helpful.

Discuss different ways to present a message or idea and ask your child which one seems more appropriate in a given context. For example:

“May I please go to the party” (polite) vs. “You better let me go” (impolite).

“That music is loud” (indirect) vs. “Turn off the radio” (direct).

Talk about why some requests would be more persuasive than others. If your child tends to make a lot of direct statements, help him/her turn them into indirect statements when appropriate. For example, when riding in the car and your child is hot, he/she could say, “it’s really hot back here” vs. “turn up the air conditioning!” Talk about when it is more appropriate to use indirect statements vs. direct statements such as when talking to a friend’s parents or when with a group of people where one must be aware and sensitive to how other people may be feeling.

To help a child make comments, focus on modeling comments for the child. Ask open-ended questions such as, “tell me about…” For young children, use comments during play that require responses, such as saying, “wow, I’m hungry” while playing kitchen or “I need a ride” while playing with cars and toy people. These comments allow the child an opportunity to respond to your intention. Encourage your child to explain what he’s doing while he/she is doing it. If you say, “I’m hungry” while playing restaurant and your child says, “okay, I’ll get you some food” then have your child explain what it is that he/she is making and bringing to you.

To help a child make requests, prompt him/her by saying, “tell your friend…” Or model a request first, “I would like to have a sandwich and juice, what do you want?”

To help a child ask questions, remind him/her to “ask me.” Encourage your child to ask you questions about your day. Model questions and answers at mealtimes for your child. Ask your spouse or siblings questions that require more than a yes/no answer. After a few turns have been taken, ask your child to ask someone a question. Talk about how asking questions can be a way to learn about other people and can be used when making friends. Remind your child that it’s important to listen to someone’s response and show them how you can follow-up on someone’s response to show that you’re listening and interested in what they have said.

To help support conversation and narrative skills:

  • Comment on your child’s topic of conversation before introducing a new topic. Add related information to what your child says. This will help your child expand upon a topic and will also model how to respond to someone else’s topic of conversation.
  • Use visual prompts such as pictures and objects, or story outlines (for an older child) to help your child tell a story in sequence. Review events or activities in sequence… “First we went to the grocery store and bought the ingredients, then we came home and baked cookies, and then we brought them to the picnic.” After you’ve modeled a sequential event for your child, begin a story and then ask, “and then what happened?” and have your child fill in missing elements. Do the same for stories that you read together. When the story is over, review the main events in order and encourage your child to tell the story to someone else. Help when necessary, but don’t focus too much on correcting, focus more on redirecting the events. For example, if your child gets off-topic in his/her retelling, you can say, “yes, but what happened after Little Red Riding Hood got to her grandmother’s house?”
  • Show your child that nonverbal signs are very important to communication. Play games where what you say does not match your facial expression and ask your child to identify the problem and show how to fix it. For example, say, “I’m SO happy!” and have a big exaggerated frown on your face. Talk about the use of gestures in communication. Ask your child to show you how to do things without using words, such as showing how to wash hands, brush teeth, make a sandwich and practice using all sorts of gestures and movements. For more sequencing practice you could then ask your child to tell you the steps involved as he/she is making the movements.

Remember to keep the activities fun—if your child is losing interest quickly, either try to make it more like a game, or try working on it another time. Find natural, teachable moments without making it seem that you’re lecturing or criticizing. Suggest that you want to play a family game and then use some of the different ideas discussed above and have different members of the family take turns. This will not only take the pressure off of your child, but will provide more language examples for him/her to learn from.

Reference: ASHA article titled, “Pragmatics, Socially Speaking.