Focusing on Functional Communication

In Speech, as we work on specific goals and the details of those goals, it is good of us as parents and therapists to remember the purpose behind working on these skills. Asking, “why are we doing this?” to yourself and, even better, to your therapist is always a good question.  Yes, we are working on improving communication, but what does that look like if we think more specifically? This is where the word “functional” comes in. “Functional,” meaning it results in a practical or useful outcome. As therapists, the goals we write and the point of therapy is to provide meaningful benefits to the lives of our patients. You, as parents, can also keep that goal in mind. So “functional” communication is relaying and understanding messages that directly apply to everyday living. This can look very different for different patients, so let’s look at a few positive and negative examples of functional communication.

  1. For a child who is great at naming colors but struggles with asking for things, functional communication would not look like learning to name dinosaurs. Although that is a fun skill, when would he use that in everyday life? Instead, it would look like being able to express his wants and needs at home. When he wants a snack, instead of pulling mom or dad towards the pantry, he can say “hungry” or “eat” and let his parents know what he wants immediately.
  2. For a child who has a strength in commenting and talking about their favorite topic, Star Wars, but struggles with shifting and maintaining a non-preferred topic, functional communication would not look like working on saying complex sentences about lightsabers. Instead, it would look like maintaining a non-preferred topic and asking questions about another person’s interests. That way, they can participate in reciprocal conversations with friends at school.
  3. For a child who is easily understood but has errors saying her “L” sound, who also has difficulty putting more than 2 words together, functional communication would not look like working on the ‘L’ sound. Instead, it would look like expanding her phrases so she can express more nuanced ideas and begin to use more descriptive language. 

With these examples, we can see how choosing what to work on can be informed by whether or not it is beneficial to everyday communication. Now, there is a time and a place for more academic goals. Speech therapy can focus on those as well. However, when we focus on functional communication, we look for a direct connection between the skill and everyday life.

So, feel free to ask the “why?” question behind your child’s goals and think of how it will apply to their everyday lives. Working on putting words together into sentences? How about try ordering from a restaurant? Working on requesting? How about asking for help with the water at bath time? As always, creativity and knowing your child are your guides. And as you love your kids, know that Jesus loves you and your families! 

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