Attention Parents and Educators!

Ever had an experience in the classroom/home where a student is trying REALLY hard to tell you something, but you just can’t understand what they are saying? It can be a very frustrating experience for both adult and student. We refer to these moments as “communication breakdowns.” A communication breakdown is any time a person is trying to communicate a message that is not being understood. On occasion these breakdowns can lead to melt downs or physical behaviour (for example when a student is so frustrated with talking, they resort to pushing).

We are here to help!

The following strategies may be used to help repair or avoid communication breakdowns:

Take ownership for the breakdown (For example: “I’m sorry I can’t think of the word you are telling me”). This helps to remove some pressure from the student and shares the responsibility of the breakdown.

When you can’t understand what the student is saying, try to be patient despite frustration. When possible remove extraneous noise and get face-to-face with the student.

Use choice questions that limit the range of likely responses (e.g., “Do you want grapes or crackers?” vs., “What do you want to eat?”) This will provide context to the question.

Ask other questions that establish a context to decrease misunderstanding (e.g., “Is it a toy?” “Did it happen today?”)

Ask related questions that elicit a different word as a response (e.g., “What room is it in?”) Remember some words/sounds may be easier than others to say. By asking a different question you might land on a word that the student CAN produce.

Encourage the student to show you, take you and or use facial expressions/gestures about what they mean. Start by asking “Can you show me?” Keep in mind that some students are very good at drawing pictures of various events. It might be just enough to give you a clue!

Ask yes/no questions. If you know the student has a reliable way of saying yes/no (verbal or non-verbal) then you can help reduce the demand being placed on their talking. This is especially helpful when you are in a hurry!

Repeat to clarify. Let the student know which part of their sentence was understood (e.g., “You’re telling me about something that happened at recess. Am I right?”) then they will feel less frustrated and be able to emphasize the part that you did not understand.

Always follow a frustrating communicative sequence with some sort of positive experience or comment for the student, even if you didn’t sort through the breakdown.

Avoid asking the student to repeat themselves without rephrasing your question in some way. Saying “Tell me again” may work for children without speech/language challenges who are just going too quickly but could be very frustrating for a child who hears that every time they speak. Instead try using yes/no questions, or the context questions listed above.

If you’re unable to understand the student’s message, try to reassure them so that they don’t feel that you are disappointed or frustrated with them. These things happen, you will get it next time!

When working through a communication breakdown we want to ensure that we are always rewarding the child for trying! For that student, every time they talk may feel like a big risk, but it is a risk we want them to keep taking. Reinforcing the trying may encourage them to try again next time!

Finally, when does not understanding a student become worth a referral?

We expect that an unfamiliar listener can understand:

  • 50% of what a 2-3-year-old child says,
  • 75% of what a 3-4-year-old child says and
  • 100% by age 4!

(Flipsen, 2006)

Unfamiliar listeners are defined as someone who does not spend time with that child on a regular basis (since we know parents and siblings are often the BEST at understanding their family member with communication challenges)

Flipsen, P., Jr. (2006). Measuring the intelligibility of conversational speech in children. Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics. 20(4), 202-312.