Dr. James MacDonald 332 Mimring Columbus, Ohio 43202 Phone/Fax 614 447-0768 macdonaldj86@gmail.com

Communicating Partners

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Low Interaction

While we may think of communicative relationships as based on ideas and words, children find the beginnings of relationships in any actions that can be shared.  Infants begin to interact as they and their caregivers move and make sounds back and forth in any ways available to them.  When faced with children who are not interacting or communicating as well as we would expect for their age, we must remember that children must begin by interacting if they are to learn to  communicate.  The problem of low interactive participation is an extremely serious one, one that can undermine all the efforts of home and school to make a child social and communicative. * It is critical for a child's caregivers to realize that every interaction is an opportunity to become social and communicative.*   Conversely, the less the child interacts, the less he will learn to socialize and communicate. 

It is easy for many adults to see a child play primarily alone and say, "He seems happy and I know play is good for him, so I suppose he'll come to me when he's ready to communicate."  This widespread view that interactions with people is optional and not critical for a child may be one of the most pervasive problems facing a child with delays.  Regular frequent and sustained interactions must become a habit if any delayed child is to become a social and communicative member of society. 

Low Activity Level

To become social, a child must be active.  A passive or lethargic child will give others few opportunites to interact with him.  Other people will  have to initiate to a child who may be sending signals to not interact.  *Every action of a child is an opportunity to learn and a potential signal for others to interact.*  Your relationship with your child may be unintentionally telling him that doing little is acceptable, particularly if he is accustomed to being cared for and not being expected  to participate. 

Purposeless or Random Actions

Frequently we see child move with no apparent reason or no relationship to what others are doing.  * A basic principle of our program is that every action or sound of a child can become an interaction and communication if other react as if it were. Consequently, be aware of your child's seemingly meaningless behaviors; with care you can make them interactive by gently showing the child how to do them with you.  The more you enter your child's world, act like him, and wait for him to participate, the more likely your child's behavior will become social and meaningful.*  

Playful, but Not Social Behavior-- Plays on Own Activity 

A disturbing sight is a number of children playing alone, with their caregivers assuming that the children are learning all they need.  While playing alone is essential for many reasons-- cognitive skills, self-esteem, among others-- playing and interacting with people is essential for learning to be social and communicative.  While playing alone, a child may be learning a great deal, but for that learning to become communicated and useful in relationships, he must practice and express it with others regularly.  The kind of modeling and fine-tuning a child needs to continue learning is available mainly  in interactions that are matched and responsive and that allow him freedom to act on his own motivations. 

Passive Style 

A pervasive problem that concerns us in our work with children is the passiveness that children with delays display with adults and peers alike.  Throughout this book we propose that these children are the victims of "learned helplessness"; that is, they have learned that interacting often faces them with impossible  tasks, while acting helpless allows them to maintain the status quo.  Although the status quo may not be great, it is comfortable and the children have no good reason to change. 

Passive children often send a signal to others not to approach and certainly not to expect much new.  Unfortunately, passive children often reward caretakers with compliant behavior  and little time-consuming resistance.  A child who is passive is a child who is not participating in learning and frequently is not showing the extensive knowledge and skills he may have.  Our goals with passive children are that they interact, physically prompted if necessary; that they learn that not only is interacting possible but also that it will provide rewards; and that  they follow their own motivations. 

Lack of Give and Take with Actions

It is understandable that some adults view communicating as the place for children and adults to build a give-and-take social habit and playing as the child's world to explore alone.  But once adults realize that communications come from actions, they come to see the value of building a give-and-take habit with any actions available to the child.  Consider that every time you interact  back and forth with a child, you are showing him the way to communicate and build conversational habits. 

Same Actions Over and Over

Children whose actions, alone or with others, do not regularly change may be in developmental trouble.  Children who drop endless checkers into a can, make identical movements to music, or perseverate in other ways are unlikely to be learning either cognitively or socially.  Regardless of the reasons for this behavior, it is not productive and it may not represent what the child is capable of doing.  Through turntaking a child learns to act and communicate with people in a give-and-take format that teaches new behaviors and that the new behaviors will be more productive than old ones. 

Failure to Keep Attending  to Shared Activity

Inadequate and wandering attention is certainly one of the most frequently reported problems of children.  It is essential that children with delays stay in interactions if they are to learn.  Language meanings are learned through shared activities, as are the social rules for communication. 

While attention is a vast issue in learning and is discussed elsewhere in this book, a few points can be noted here.  We have found that a child is likely to attend with others to the degree that   a) the child is successful,  b)  the adult matches the child's interests and abilities and allows the child to participate through the adult's  waiting and expecting,  c) the adult and child both have the opportunity to take the lead and control the event,  d) there is a sense of enjoyment rather than work or testing, and  e) the child has a sense that the event actively belongs to him and that he is not placed in a passive role.

Brief or Dead-end Contacts During Activity 

In the busy world of home and classroom, it is reasonable to have a brief contact that gets a job done or solves a problem, then move on to another task.  Parents and teachers alike report that it takes no noticeably extra time to keep a child for one or two turns in interactions  that are laced throughout  daily routines and leisure time.  With the notion that any interaction is an opportunity to communicate, we stress  to adults the critical importance of teaching their children that extended interactions must be a way of life if they are to build communicative partnerships.  We  consistently return to a general recommendation for building interactions to "keep the child back and forth a little longer."  

Dr. Jim MacDonald, Becoming Partners with Children: From Play to Conversation, 1989, pages  113-116

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Dr. James MacDonald 332 Mimring Columbus, Ohio 43202 Phone/Fax (614)447-0768 macdonaldj86@gmail.com