I recently had the pleasure of babysitting for David who is 16 months. If you don’t have a toddler of your own, you MUST do this! Ten to eighteen months is the perfect age range. Trust me. Find someone with a child in this age range, offer to provide child care and send mom out to lunch.
This occasion was a perfect opportunity to “remember” what happens in typical communication development at the point where skills are just emerging. It’s so easy to forget about the subtle things that occur as communication and social interaction develop.
Gestures were critically important
On this particular day, it was all about gestures. David pointed to a ceiling fan he was particularly fond of. Pointing and showing and pushing away were just a few of the gestures he used to let me know what he wanted and especially what he didn’t want. The foundation of his social connection with me was in the form of gestures.
That made me remember
I have worked with parents and teachers that have been so focused on the development of speech that they have basically skipped over this stage of gestures in communication development.
I remember a parent who wanted an IEP objective that stated that we would ignore gestures and only respond to her son when he talked. Unfortunately, misguided thinking doesn’t understand that gestures are important tools to enhance communication. Even adults use gestures as a part of their communication system.
Here’s what research tells us about gestures*
- Gestures are a significant part of communication development, creating a bridge between pre-verbal communication and speech.
- Gestures enhance the child’s communication ability. They create communication before the child can speak.
- There is a positive correlation between parent gesture and child gesture. Parents who use more gestures tend to have children who use more gestures.
- When children use more gestures they tend to get more verbal feedback from their parents (which stimulates their verbal development).
- Early child gesture predicts later child vocabulary. Those who use more gestures at about 14 months demonstrate larger vocabularies at 54 months.
- Children spontaneously produce gestures along with their speech, just like adults do.
- Parents are often reluctant to encourage gesturing in their children with communication delays because they fear the child will not put forth the effort to verbalize.
- Encouraging the use of gestures will not hinder the development of verbalization. Rather, using gestures can facilitate and encourage speech development.
- There is quite a bit of research describing the relationship between gestures and language development of typically developing children. Less is known about development of the gesture-language system of children who experience language delay or communication disorders.
- The use of gestures to support communication continues even after children develop verbal language. Gestures are an important part of the communication system even for adults.
Just to clarify
When we are referring to gestures, here are some examples. We are including things like this:
- Nodding “yes” or shaking “no”
- Reaching, touching
- Sharing attention with objects
- Giving objects
- Directing another person’s attention
- Imitating life actions such as putting hand to mouth for eating
- Waving goodbye
- Reach up for “pick me up”
- Blow kisses
- Hand something for “help” or “open”
- “All done”
- “Where did it go”
- “Patty Cake” and “Peek-a-Boo”
Do not fear
Encouraging gestures provides positive results for young children who are learning to communicate. Speech Therapists and educators can encourage all communication partners to make sure to model gestures for students and respond to their gesture attempts.
P.S. I’m such a fanatic about the power of using visual strategies for communication, I think it’s important to remind us all that gestures are visual. They work really well to get a young child’s attention.
P.P.S. One more thing. The best is when gestures work both ways. The child uses gestures. And you, the communication partner, use gestures. Play, imitation and communication. Make them big. Be dramatic. Have fun with them.