Implications of Development on Communication

Understanding development and determining the presence or absence of critical foundational milestones is crucial when assessing and/or supporting a student's communication skills.

The skills acquired within the first few years of life are precursors to language, imagination, memory, and logic. Several critical foundations for language are acquired within these early stages, including joint attention, object permanence, delayed imitation, and symbolic attachment, all of which have implications for communication and behavior. Educators should understand the developmental profile of the student in order to create a meaningful and functional communication program and behavior plan that matches their individual strengths and weaknesses.

Joint Attention

If a child cannot engage in joint attention by shifting gaze between the communication partner and object or event, then that child might miss out on natural learning opportunities when adults point and label things in the environment. Additionally, this social skill supports meaningful interactions between people, and communication begins with attention and engagement with people. Interacting with people leads to listening, which then supports comprehension of language, and then to actually using language.

Delayed Imitation

Typically, children learn by watching others and then imitating what they see and hear at a later time. When a child has not acquired delayed imitation, educators cannot expect that child to imitate sounds, words, and phrases beyond that immediate context. Imitation also requires joint attention/visual attention as a child has to be able to attend to the modeled skill.

Object Permanence

Object permanence, the understanding that objects exist even when out of view and the ability to form mental representations of objects, is another precursor to symbolic reasoning. Without it, children may struggle with separation anxiety, not want to give up a toy, or may not request items that are not in view. Without mental models, students are not able to make much use of information from their past experiences or plan future actions. This means that they think by physically manipulating items in their environment; and therefore, they have not shifted to symbolic thinking or understanding how to use symbols (e.g., pictures, gestures, words etc.). to represent objects, persons, and events that are not present.

Symbolic Attachment

Symbolic attachment is the ability to use symbols to represent things. It means that a person understands that something (spoken word, picture, sign, text, etc.) can stand for something else (the actual object, action, activity, etc.). This developmental milestone is essential for language acquisition as words are symbols. Without reliable symbolic attachment, students will rely on pre-symbolic forms of communication to gain attention, request items/activities, or reject/protest.

When educators expect pre-symbolic learners to use symbols as a behavior, communication, or visual support in the classroom, oftentimes we see an increase in negative behavior as we are not working within that student's zone of proximal development and then that student is left without a meaningful way to communicate purposefully.

Although we expose these students to symbolic language when we model oral speech or point to/select pictures in a book, topic board, or voice output device (language input), we cannot rely on those symbols as a way for the child to communicate (language output) at this time and need to honor the forms that are meaningful and accessible to them. It is important to remember that students at this stage still communicate, just not with symbols.

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