Signs & Symptoms

Functional Communication

Is your child struggling to express wants and needs?

Some children do not have age-appropriate functional communication, which is communication that is practical or serves a function in life. Someone with an extensive vocabulary may not necessarily have functional communication.

Maybe this challenge with functional communication is evident from age three, when your child throws a tantrum instead of asking for something he wants or needs. Maybe, at age eight, your child is not able to recap her day or to tell you how to play a board game. Your child may not be able to answer “why” questions.

It could be that expressions like “let’s hit the road” or “he gets under my skin” elicit a puzzled expression in your child. Some children view the world in a way that is very literal and concrete; others really do not understand how to have a conversation.

Some children monologue about a preferred topic, sharing lots of information, but forgetting to ask questions of others. Perhaps your child must be explicitly taught to express interest in things a peer enjoys, rather than having this social skill come naturally.

What do challenges with Functional Communication look like?

  • Having trouble asking for help?
  • Demonstrating challenges with communication?
  • Crying and deliberately falling on the floor instead of asking for a cookie?
  • Using a single word like “puppy” but not “Momma, I want some milk”?
  • Talking but unable to converse back-and-forth?
  • Often responding “I don’t know” to questions like “What did you do today?” or “Who did you play with at recess?”

Why is Functional Communication happening?

Functional communication is clearly stating one’s own wants and needs. It is the skill of appropriately communicating information that serves a purpose for that person or meets a need. Classroom examples of good functional communication include telling a teacher that, “I didn’t understand the directions” or “I haven’t finished my work yet.” Other examples include saying, “I need a bathroom break,” or “I’m feeling sick.”  This type of communication asks for the help, assistance, or understanding of others. If functional communication is a concern, the individual does not ask for help or assumes that others should know what they are thinking or feeling.

How can I manage Functional Communication at home?

Children with challenges in functional communication may have solid rote language skills; meaning that they may name items and speak well.

It can be helpful to provide opportunities for your child to work on social language and conversation. Join a club or group related to his or her interest. Help to support and nurture conversation by suggesting words or phrases.

For example, if your child is whining for a cookie or screaming and pointing to an item just out of reach, give the child the words to say. ‘Say, I want a cookie,’ or ‘Say, please help,’ you may suggest. As your child improves, you might pull back a little and offer something like “I want…” so your child needs to only say “truck” or “cookie”.

Make feeling cards for sad, happy, mad and worried with faces pictured depicting each emotion. Have your child and siblings make these faces for the camera so the faces depicted can be familiar. Allow your child to use these facial expression feeling cards to share with you how he or she is feeling.

At the end of a long day, give your child some down time before having to talk or share much. This way, he or she can regroup from the day and can relax before working on something that is hard for him or her.

To describe the school day, give your child specific questions with prompts. Have the class picture on the fridge, and use prompts like “today I played with…” or “I had lunch sitting beside…” “In math class we…” Starting with these direct statements can help your child to share more information. This strategy is sometimes referred to as ‘scripting,’ which means that you are essentially giving your child a script for social exchanges.

If this approach doesn’t help enough, look for a community social skills group with a therapist who facilitates the interaction and teaches conversation skills.

If your child continues to have difficulty, consider direct speech and language therapy with a focus on pragmatic communication. Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA therapy is an in-home therapy that uses behavioral strategies to increase pragmatic language (social language) and functional communication. This therapy may not be available under insurance coverage unless your child has a formal diagnosis.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Functional Communication?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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Once we understand your child’s needs, we will help families get connected to the right specialists. No more guesswork, no more wasted time and resources.

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Our Coaching Packages allow us to continually support families as they continue their journeys. Parental coaching, life-skills practice, and school advocacy are just a few examples of ways we help.

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