Use Your Words: Sensory Strategies for Speech and Language

Little ones have a lot to say; they just don’t know how to say it. They may babble and talk in gibberish to you, or demand your attention by yelling or pulling at you. They may request “juice,” but mean cookie.

Although children begin utilizing 2–3-word phrases between 2-3 years of age, it doesn’t mean they know what or how to verbally express themselves clearly. This guessing game can easily turn into an onslaught of tears, tantrums, and frustration for both parents and child.

Oh, Behave

Behavior, whether it’s good or bad, is a form of communication, especially for kids. There’s always an underlying reason for their actions, even if it doesn’t make sense to us. These behaviors include:

  • Attention: can be positive (“Great job helping today!”) or negative (“Why would you hit your sister?”); they don’t care which one as long it provides an opportunity to connect with someone
  • Escape: using behavior to avoid an activity or situation, like running away and hiding when you say “bedtime” or trying to get a “time-out” to avoid cleaning up their toys
  • Access: engaging in behaviors to obtain an item or do a preferred task, like screaming until they get that candy bar in the store
  • Physical: behavior that is driven by being overly tired, hungry, or sick, like frequently moving to keep themselves awake or wanting to lay down instead of sitting up
  • Frustration: displaying behaviors when it’s difficult communicating or handling emotions, like screaming
  • Sensory: behaviors that provide some type of pleasing input to help regulate, like making noises with their mouth

When behaviors go over the edge, they can become tantrums or meltdowns. We’ve discussed the difference between these two outbursts before, but in short:

  • Tantrums occur when a child doesn’t or can’t get what they want or need. They still have some control over their actions and will likely stop when they get what they want or realize this behavior is not achieving the desired outcome.
  • Meltdowns happen when a child can no longer control their emotions, resulting in an irrational flight-fight-fright response. There is no immediate fix when this happens, only time and comfort as the child will eventually wear themself out.

As kids develop their speech and language skills, these behaviors lessen as they are able to communicate their wants and needs appropriately. So, how can parents help? Consider their senses.

Come to Your Senses

Multisensory cueing is strategically activating the various sensory systems to aid in speech and language development. By utilizing more than one sense, you’re establishing meaningful words and actions for your child to verbally communicate.

*Before trying to work on communication with your child, make sure they are regulated. Just as we talked last week about regulation and speech, you will fight an uphill battle if they are too tired to listen or too wired to care. Wait until they can attend and respond appropriately to you.

Visual Cues. These provide a visual model related to the shape, placement, and movement of the jaw, lips, and tongue to clearly say a word.

  • Posturing – looks like lip reading, but you are showing your child how to form a sound with the correct tongue, lip, teeth placement and then mouthing the word with no voice
  • Gesturing – pairing common gestures or baby sign language with words
  • Mirror use – talking in front of the mirror gets your little one to look at themself and you, watching what your mouths are doing with each sound

Verbal Cues. These give an auditory model of a sound or word.

  • Phonemic cues – using the first sound of the word, like “guh” sound for go or “cuh” for cup
  • Carrier phrases and pivot words – the phrases are same but can be customized by adding different words, like “I see a___” (carrier phrase) or “Hi___” (pivot word)
  • Prosodic cues – emphasizing the appropriate pronunciation of a word if the child doesn’t say it correctly, like SHoes” if they say Soos”

Kinesthetic Cues. These rely on proprioception and vestibular systems to help feel movements in relation to speech.

  • Pairing speech sounds with play-based movement – saying “Whee!” as your child goes down the slide or “Woah!” while the swing changes speed or direction
  • Rhythmic body movements – think clapping or tapping to match the rhythm of speech, like clapping while saying, “I-love-you.”
  • Hand gestures to songs – like Pat-a-Cake or Wheels on the Bus

Semantic Cues. Cognitive cues related to the meaning of the sound or word.

  • Sound metaphors – like making a snake sound for the letter “s”
  • Phrase completion – using common phrases that everyone knows the ending to, like “Ready, set, __” or “Pop goes the___”

Child’s Play

Above all else, participate in your kid’s play. Let them pick the activity and help them boost their speech and language by connecting with you. In other words, put the phone down and be present with your kiddo. Examples include:

  • Build their vocabulary by describing what objects or substances they are playing with (ex: soft/hard, round/pointy, shiny/dull, big/small, etc)
  • Expand words into phrases by asking questions (ex: “What are you doing with your blocks?”). They may need assistance finding the words, so label their actions (“You are stacking the blocks into a tower”).
  • Ask a combo of open and close-ended questions to increase their comprehension (ex: “What did you make? Do you want to finger paint?”)
  • Provide simple 1-step directions that require your child to identify objects and complete an action (ex: “Put the panda in the truck”). As their understanding of simple instructions improve, add more details and steps (ex: “Give the gray mouse the chocolate cake from the counter”).

Yes, a lot of these tips seem super simple and you’ve probably used them before. These are tricks that many TV shows will use to get kids interested and engaged. The good news is that these strategies help with a lot more than just quizzing your kid for vocab. You are integrating senses, creating brain connections between motor skills and speech development, and building language and conversation.

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Ebert, C. (2018, April 18). Sensory Integration & Speech Delays. Retrieved from seminar.
Why You Should Be Using Sensory Play in Speech Therapy | Allison Fors, Inc.

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