Requesting is one of the first areas to target when you want to increase language. This is the area that may be triggering a lot of unwanted behavior in your home. If your child is not able to communicate simple requests for food, interaction or basic needs, then frustration sets in and your child will use other less appropriate, but functional, ways to communicate to you. This can look like screaming, crying, throwing tantrums, hurting others or themselves, or trying to get the item themselves by doing things they are not supposed to. The goal is to help your child communicate his wants and needs in an independent and appropriate way to you and others in his/her environment.
First we need to set up your environment. This is a very important step when beginning to work on the skill of requesting. If your child has free access to his favorite toys or food then he/she has no need to communicate with you. You want to create this need with a highly motivational object(s). I would choose 3 -5 top items that are from different genres such as: a favorite food item, a toy, an activity, a movie or music. Then, make sure your child does not have access to these items without you giving it to him. Take the item and hold or place it so he/she can see it, but not take it. You can even start the activity, such as blowing some bubbles, to get him/her excited about the activity. Get down to your child’s eye level and model the word “bubbles” exaggerating the mouth movements and using a gesture/sign if you need one. Wait a few seconds to see if your child will repeat this word or an approximation of the word. If your child repeats any form of the word, blow more bubbles for them right away. Be very excited about the word they just said and then repeat this process. If your child does not say the word bubbles after a few seconds, repeat the word bubbles again with a sign or gesture and wait. If your child is still not able to repeat this word do this one more time and then help your child to imitate the gesture you were using as a sign to request the bubbles. Say the word bubbles when you blow the bubbles for him/her. You want to create a situation where your child sees that the word bubbles and the actual bubbles activity go together. If your child does not repeat the word or attempt a sound make sure you help him to do an action with his hands to request the item before giving it to him.
Sometimes your child will begin to get upset and use his old behavior of screaming or crying or another inappropriate way to get the activity or item you are offering. You do not want your child to continue to associate getting his needs and wants met with this behavior and you are going to have to change this association. When you offer your child the desired item and they begin presenting unwanted behavior such as crying, say firmly, but not angrily “quiet voice ”, or another statement of the behavior you want, such as: calm body or safe hands etc. Do not look at your child or give any other attention to your child during this time. Do not give your child the item either. Continue to just repeat what your expectation of your child is until your child stops the unwanted behavior. In our example, that is crying. This process can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour depending on the personality of your child and how strong the association between the item and crying to get something. If you need to continue to go about your day, tell your child “let me know when you are ready to use a quiet voice.” and move on until your child is done throwing their fit. DO NOT GIVE YOUR CHILD THE ITEM until they are calm and using an appropriate way to ask you. Also, if your child moves away from you during this time do not follow them. If he/she returns to you with the problem behavior you can resume your practice of having them use a word or gesture to request the item/action.
If your child has no words and imitating your gestures/signs is not an option, you can do the same procedure but use pictures instead to help your child effectively communicate. My personal opinion is that signs are easier because your hands are always with you and signs are immediate versus pictures where you have to make sure you are carrying your pictures with you or in a specific location so that it’s easy for your child to access the pictures. However, other people may be able to understand the picture easier than signs. In this case, start with 3-5 pictures of their favorite items and print them out. Laminating helps keep the pictures from being bent and torn and put velcro strips on the back. You can also use magnets if you want to try to have them on your fridge. Keep the pictures at the child’s eye level and let them have the ability to access them throughout the day. Practice getting the items out so they can see them and have the child give you the picture to request the items/actions. Continue to say the word when you are using the pictures to request different items. Your child may start to use some approximations or words with the pictures as well.
When you are picking signs to teach your child do not start with general signs such as yes, no, more , please, or give me. This can lead to your child not increasing his/her sign repertoire and getting frustrated when you are not accepting these signs as appropriate requests. When your child is signing more and you don’t know what they want more of this can be frustrating.
Be specific so your child is able to communicate effectively, which can eliminate frustration for you and your child. I had a mom who told me her child was able to sign for a few things but she could not increase the amount of signs her daughter used. I went to her house to observe how her daughter was requesting and soon realized that every time her daughter wanted a drink, she would sign drink; her mom would go to the kitchen and get her a glass of juice, but her daughter was still not happy. She went back and got water, which her daughter wanted. This mom was frustrated because she was missing out on effectively communicating with her daughter. Her daughter was missing the opportunity to learn more signs. We were able to start incorporating specific signs for apple juice, milk and water, as well as some other signs for snacks and favorite foods, that were more specific than eat and drink. Communication improved and frustration decreased for both mom and daughter.
Requesting should be taught throughout the day multiple times day. If you are experiencing trouble with teaching your child to use requests you may want to look at your child’s motivation for the item or activity. Get creative with reinforcers, use requests for actions such as open, squeeze, spin, push, go, stop etc. If a kiddo particularly enjoys riding in a wagon, but once wagon is requested and they were in it and how are you going to get them out of the wagon to practice requesting? I would pull the wagon for 5 – 10 seconds and then abruptly stop. Your child might start trying to move his body in the wagon to get it started again. This is your second opportunity to practice requesting the word go. Sign and say “go” your child imitates the sign and you are off again. This creates multiple times to practice our new request. Then you could go really fast and then go slow. Depending how much of a workout you want! Creating the opportunity to request using adjectives. By the end of our session your child could have requested wagon, go, stop, fast, and slow. Plus you didn’t have to come up with tons of creative ways of getting him out of the wagon several times! Create the opportunities within the normal activities you do with your child every day.
Requesting is the first piece of language that children learn to use. Babies use crying as a form of requesting to get fed, changed, attention etc. and as they grow they are able to use words and then sentences. When this behavior is not replaced with language as your child grows, maladaptive behavior is used and reinforced instead, which can lead to frustration and lack of effective communication in the future. As your child develops their reinforcers and motivation for activities will be changing. You will need to be flexible and look for ways to continually teach new requests. For example, you child wants to go for a walk outside. He/she learns to request walk, they need shoes, so you teach shoes, they may need a coat, a hat, etc. Next, you wait at the door and teach them to request open. They are motivated for these items and actions because they are all necessary for the walk they want to go on. You just increased the amount of requeststhey are learning to use. As your child’s language skills increase you can start to model 2-3 word requests such as the phrases ” I want _____” or “I need _____”. You are now on your way to increasing the language that your child is using. If you want more indepth information about how to teach requesting to your child, send me your email address and I will send you a free PDF printable to help you use more strategies when teaching your child more requests.