Parent Tips to Build Functional Communication Skills for Preschool & School Aged Children

All behavior is communication. Functional communication is the first step towards gaining the most basic communication skills with your child in preschool. When a child expresses basic wants and needs, such as “I want” or “I need this,” they are expressing functional communication. Eventually, these words expand throughout the following years of development with simple sentences. Preschool children typically communicate on a simple sentence level using a variety of nouns, verbs, spatial concepts (e.g. in, on, under, next to), and qualitative concepts (e.g. adjectives).  However, children with speech and language delays may produce words and sentences much later than expected for their age.

To work on functional language, a speech language pathologist can verbally model receptive and expressive language skills through play-based activities, everyday routines, and structured language tasks.  The speech language pathologist can then coach parents on how to expand or lengthen a child’s speech utterances by adding vocabulary or more complex syntax or sentence structures. Additionally, the speech language pathologist can demonstrate to parents how to use language recasts or modify a child’s speech utterance by changing the type of sentence or voice. For example, if a child says a declarative statement, the parent can recast or change it into an interrogative or question sentence.

Here are a few play-based toys that parents may use to facilitate language growth with preschool children:

1. Bubbles

2. Vehicles

3. Blocks

4. Legos

5. Sensory Toys

Here are a few selections from Lakeshore Learning. Click here

For nonverbal or minimally verbal children, parents also desire tips to attain the best possible results for building communication skills. With collaboration from the speech language pathologist, a parent may use the following to facilitate an increase in functional communication:

Sign Language: Nonverbal children can use simple signs to communicate wants and needs. This does not interfere with language acquisition.

Body Language and Gestures: Pointing is an early indicator of communication for children. Facial expressions also indicate communication whether it be through joy or sadness. For example, if you notice that your child is happy, you may state the following: “I notice that you are happy because you are playing with the toy.”

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS): PECS allows a child to communicate through pictures of what he or she wants.

Low Tech or High Tech Communication AAC: A low tech AAC does not have voice output but can still assist a child in communication. It is an alternative/augmentative communication (AAC) device with pictures in which the child can point towards his or her wants or needs. High Tech Communication AAC device has voice output that may be recorded by the parent or speech language pathologist with core and other functional vocabulary.

As a parent, once you are aware of the optimal communication method of your child, depending on the level of the severity of your child’s communication skills, you can begin to choose new words to teach. Explaining new vocabulary words carefully in sentence examples can help your child understand the new words. You must model the new words and repeat the words many, many times. It may take some time for your child to understand the new word. Children in preschool and elementary school aged children must hear new words many times to learn the new vocabulary.

In addition to learning new words, try to expand the sentences of your child’s speech production. For example, ask questions pertaining to the subject of conversation. Use who, what, when, where, and how. Expand each sentence. You will be amazed with your child’s results and knowledge.

Description is vital for both preschool and elementary school children. Whenever you are going to a new place, describe the environment. Talk about the day’s activities or about your regular workday in the evening. In addition, talk about the books that you read together.

Reading is the most important element towards your child’s success. By improving one’s receptive language, your child’s understanding of language will flourish when reading with your child daily. Reading will also build your child’s vocabulary and help your child to utilize “context clues” to discover new words.

To further educate your child, take a look at these books for National Caribbean Heritage Month to learn more about the culture of the Caribbean Islands!

I AM a Promise by authors Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce & Ashley Rousseau, Illustrated by Rachel Moss


Malaika’s Surprise by author Nadia L. Hohn & Illustrator Irene Luxbacher


Food in the Caribbean by Polly Goodman


Where Are You From? By Yamile Saied Méndez


Kallaloo! A Caribbean Tale by Phillis and David Gershator


Islandborn by Junot Díaz


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