Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Best Social-Communication Teacher

When we first got Joy evaluated and into the Birth to Three early intervention program, we had an interesting stroke of luck.

The program was short on speech therapists, didn't have one to assign to us right away, so gave us something else instead. I got a couple of months of weekly training in parental techniques to encourage communication, using the Hanen program and the book It Takes Two to Talk. (There's another version of the program that's focused on ASDs, called More Than Words, but we didn't have a diagnosis at the time.)

The Hanen training gave us a magnificent foundation for getting more out of Joy's communication, turning us into better Joy-listeners and communication partners.

The Hanen program was founded in Canada for the very situation that we were facing: frustration with long waits for professional speech therapists, families who needed to get started "right now." It's an incredibly empowering approach. As their site says,
The goal of It Takes Two to Talk is to enable parents to become their child’s primary language facilitator, thereby maximizing the child’s opportunities for communication development in everyday situations.

Some of the highlights of the Hanen program, for me:

  • An emphasis on meeting your child where she's at. This includes a very basic physical principle of positioning yourself to be really face-to-face with your child, rather than talking at her from on high. But it also entails letting you child show you what she's interested in, and paying close attention to her cues, and responding in a way that stands a good chance of drawing a further response. It Takes Two to Talk calls this the "Tuned-In Parent."

  • An emphasis on playfulness and fun. As in, your kid's going to be much more interested in sticking with a social interaction if it's enjoyable all around. Let go of thinking that you have to make them talk (how many times have you heard an adult doing something like: "Hey, Joy, can you say 'spoon'? C'mon, say 'spoon' honey. Say 'spoon'!" and then she doesn't say 'spoon' and it gets totally un-fun for everyone.) Instead, enjoy what interactions they *can* do... maybe pretend to eat from the spoon. "Mm, good food!" then pass the spoon back and say "Joy's spoon!" and maybe she can pretend to eat too....

  • One acronym I actually remember from the program, which is OWL, for Observe, Wait, Listen. Observe to see what your child is interested in. Wait to give her enough time to send you a message, whether a sound or gaze or action or whatever (it helps to lean forward and look expectantly, sending your own message that you are indeed waiting for a communication!) Then Listen for your child's message, paying attention to as many cues as you can. Even if you can't understand what her response, if you've waited and watched, you can often take a good guess and respond accordingly. Or else take a turn by imitating... and then OWL again to give your child the next turn in the interaction.

I found that a lot of this came pretty easily to me, once I took the time to think and practice. Of course there were many more steps, and thought-exercises, and we also got several video-taping sessions with the speech therapist who was leading the training so she could comment and critique how we were putting the principles into practice. It was simply thrilling to see Joy respond.

Well, another reason we ended up doing Joy's intensive autism therapy with Agency 2 and their House Blend was that their approach builds on similar principles. In fact, the James MacDonald (PhD) that I've mentioned before was involved in developing the Hanen program early on, and much of that work is evident in the Communicating Partners program that he later developed. His latest book, Play To Talk: A Practical Guide to Help Your Late-Talking Child Join the Conversation, co-authored by Pam Stoika (PhD), is a highly-readable explanation of the approach and strategies. (Plus it's reasonably priced, what a bonus!)

The parent-empowerment agenda is powerfully stated on the very first page.
If you are concerned about your child's social development, communication skills, behavior or learning, the first and most important thing to do is to find a person (or small team of people) to be your child's social language teacher. In our experience, your child will make the greatest gains with a social language teacher who is:
  • Someone who is already a competent communicator, with words as well as gestures and non-verbal communication.

  • Someone who will be available to teach your child in a variety of real-life settings, such as play time, chores, meals, family outings and daily routines

  • Someone who your child likes and trusts, and who likes and trusts your child

  • Someone who is familiar with and dedicated to supporting the cultural and family values you hold dear

  • [the list goes on!]...
Mothers and fathers, grandparents and guardians: go to the nearest mirror and look.

You just found your child's best social-communication teacher.

So, the Play to Talk / Communicating Partners training was what we layered onto the Hanen training when we were in limbo on the waiting list for intensive autism therapy, and we both wanted to keep moving forward and also start building our relationship with Agency 2.

Here's the gist of the Communicating Partners program: strategies that seem simple, but each of them can be unpacked pretty far and take quite a bit of effort and practice to really internalize!

  • Balance: Do and say about as much as the child does and says. Allow child time to participate.

  • Match: Talk and act in ways that are possible for your child. Talk and act in ways your partner can and will want to try.

  • Respond: Let your child see that you are paying attention to his feelings, actions and words.

  • Share Control: Be sure each partner has impact on the other, each partner has some control but not total control.

  • Play and Affirm: Let your child see that you enjoy and value him just as he is.

All this represents another layer of our days with Joy, and the principles according to which our House Blend baristas are trained as well.

Upcoming layers: Joy's therapy goals, and how her school-district therapists fit into all this too. And maybe some bunnies.


Anonymous said...

I like the Hanen flavor very much.

I like bunnies, too.

What did you get for your birthday?

Nope, I'm not watching the super bowl, even for the commercials and half-time. This the one day, annually that make an effort to shop. hehe, the stores are not as crowded.

Excellent post, JoyMama.


Niksmom said...

Great post. We've been very fortunate in our therapists (w/one exception when Nik was still in school). His SLP, the beloved Miss M, has been with us since he was 16 months old; she's a Hanen instructor AND a certified feeding specialist. We adore her.

And she agrees that we are Nik's best teachers, for sure. :-)

mama edge said...

I have seen JoyMama talking the talk with Joy, and it is inspiring! She seizes teachable moments left and right, and it's all about the fun every time. Everyone may now be jealous of me and my front-row seat at the JoyMama show!

(Whoa: my word verification is fakingu.)

Anonymous said...

I took the Hanen training a few years ago as well. It was excellent. We had to video record ourselves working with our children and then show them in class to be critiqued. Yikes! Some of the lessons I learned then are still very valuable today such as the OWL method. I love the parent focus.