Mandy Grist

Combining celebration and chatter

Mandy Grist offers some key tips on supporting children’s speech development over the festive period.

Christmas is coming, and in my house this usually means the joining up of friends and families to spend time together, often connecting with people that we don’t see on a regular basis. And we love it! An opportunity to share news, play games and enjoy conversation and interaction.

It’s easy to forget that some people find these types of activities more challenging than others. For those of us supporting children with communication needs, Christmas is a fine opportunity to spend time nurturing and practising communication skills in a fun and engaging way.

Naturally, one of the main things received by children at Christmas is toys…and plenty of them! Whilst these can provide some fabulous opportunities for developing communication skills it’s important to remember that creating a stimulating language environment at home doesn’t only rely on what we have; it’s what we do that’s equally as important.

In fact, there’s interesting research that shows how a child’s communication environment influences their language and communication skills. A report by Sue Roulstone and colleagues found that a child’s communication environment is made up of a number of different factors:

  • What parents do: aspects of the parent’s activity and interaction with a child;
  • What parents feel: specifically, their feelings, attitudes and sense of wellbeing;
  • What parents have: resources which are available and underpin activity with the child.

All of these things are important in influencing the way communication skills develop. Of course, as already mentioned a good communication supportive environment doesn’t depend on expensive toys or gadgets. While there is no fixed recipe for creating a positive communication environment, helpful ingredients would include:

  • A supportive parent-child relationship – as we know that this is how children’s language skills develop best
  • Awareness – parents know their child better than anyone. They know what motivates their child to communicate and how their child communicates
  • Ensuring that there are lots of opportunities for developing speech, language and communication skills through everyday activities and routines at home
  • Involvement – supporting speech, language and communication skills at home means everyone can be involved, including dads, grandparents etc
  • Making the most of opportunities, after all children spend most of their time at home or out of school

With many of us spending more time at home and with our children during Christmas holidays, it presents us with a great opportunity to really think – how are their communication skills coming along? Why not take some time to sit back and observe – websites like Talking Point can be really useful in providing some guidance about what to look out for at different ages. If you’re worried about a child’s communication skills, the I CAN Help service can provide information and advice.


Reducing anxiety in family gatherings

Of course, for children who struggle with their communication skills, having a group of new or unfamiliar people around can make talking and interacting somewhat daunting. There are of course things that we can do to help in this, meaning that communication is less challenging:

  • Help children to prepare for who they might be meeting/spending time with – talk to them about visitors and maybe even share some photos of who they will see or meet.
  • Why not show your child a plan for the day, using something like a visual timeline. It’ll help them to make sense of the arrangements and manage their expectations.
  • Talk to visitors about the way your child communicates – give them tips to help, for example ways to help your child understand what is being said to them, or information about sounds your child struggles with.

As we know that the strongest influence on the language skills of young children is their parents or carers, both indirectly through their everyday behaviour, and directly through the home environment, this influence can of course be extended to include the wider family – grandparents, aunts, siblings can all have a role to play in supporting a child’s communication skills. Capitalising on the opportunities Christmas presents, as part of the fun and festivities, is a great way to make sure this happens.