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  • Writer's pictureLaura Brown

Starting at Square One: Four Interventions to Support Social Engagement in Early Language Therapy

Have you ever wondered where to start when it comes to early language therapy? The research tells us that communication starts with social engagement and reciprocal interactions. These are the foundational skills that need to be addressed before we can work on the other foundational skills like learning words, using gestures, and growing imitation skills.

Communication requires a partner who is receiving the message and sometimes we need to spend time helping children understand the power of communication before we can jump in with our tried and true strategies for getting them to say words.

Relationship-based approaches that focus on joyful interactions allow us to prioritize connection while also creating robust opportunities for language development. But what exactly does this look like in practice?

Let's cover four interventions you can start using right away in your early language therapy to support social engagement and early communication skills!

  1. Child-led interactions

Child-led interactions foster connection, trust, and joy and are at the center of relationship-based approaches.

  • Wait and notice how the child chooses to play before joining in.

  • Comment on what catches their attention.

  • Prioritize joyful interactions over task completion.

  • Make play the modality, not the reward.

  • Honor all communication.

2. Supported Joint Engagement

When a child focuses on an item or other point of interest and an adult provides contingent language input. The adult may also model play or show a child how something works.

  • The child looks at an airplane in the sky, the adults says "Wow! An airplane! It's flying."

  • The child jumps on a trampoline, the adult says "Jump! Go go go. Whoa! That's a big jump!"

  • The child dumps out a basket of magnatiles, the adult sits beside them and starts to build.

3. Contingent Imitation

A strategy in which the adult imitates the child's actions, gestures, and vocalizations in play.

  • The child runs and crashes, the adult follows and copies their action.

  • The child claps and the adult copies their gesture by clapping back.

  • The child says "ohhhh" when they see bubbles, the adult says "ohhhh" back to them.

4. Do and Undo Routines

Simple activities that give the child an opportunity to go back and forth with you. Keep it going as long as the child is interested.

  • Fill up a toy boat (or any cup/container) with water, let the child dump it out.

  • Drop a toy into a bucket while you say "uh-oh!", let the child reach in and get it out.

  • Stack nesting cups or cardboard boxes, let the child knock it down.

  • Put post-its on the mirror, let the child take them off.

  • Turn a light switch on, let the child turn it off.

These interventions may sound simple, but there is evidence to suggest they are very powerful for developing communication skills. Let's take a look at the research:

  1. Abney et al. (2020) found a positive relationship between following the child's lead (to support coordinated attention) and later vocabulary size.

  2. Conway et al. (2008) found that the amount of time children and their caregivers spent in supported joint engagement at age 2 predicted receptive and expressive language abilities at age 3.

  3. Killmeyer et al. (2019) found that contingent imitation led to increased social engagement in autistic children at age 2.

You can find these interventions and so many more inside of The First 50 Words Course for SLPs. This course was created to be a comprehensive resource for therapy with children are emerging communicators. You will learn the fundamentals of language development, strategies for supporting early communication, and tons of interventions for supporting prelinguistic skill development in children with language disorders.

You can earn EIGHT professional development hours which count toward your 30 needed per ASHA cycle. You'll also get access to over 100 parent handouts that will help you save precious time and increase the effectiveness of your interventions!

Registration for the fall cohort opens on October 4th. Use the link below to join the waitlist and get access to early bird pricing and other special offers.

I would love to have you join us!

Talk soon!

Laura Brown, MA, CCC-SLP


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