Can we please stop expecting kids who use AAC to end every request with “please”? I’m talking about those emergent communicators who are just learning that their voice empowers them. I’m referring to those beginner communicators whom we are desperately trying to move beyond requesting “goldfish please.” The goldfish may be hugely motivating, but saying “please” — no way! Although politeness is admirable, if you push for “please” at this point, you may end up with overgeneralization due to a lack of understanding of that concept as new core words are introduced. That’s when you hear things like “I see goldfish please” on a fieldtrip to the aquarium.
We often get hung up on increasing mean length of utterance (MLU) before it’s developmentally appropriate. Let’s think about Brown’s Language Stages. If a child is using just 75 words (such as go, help, more, stop) and speaking in single words, he’s at Stage 1 (MLU: single words). When he says “more” he may really be shouting “Give me more right now!” He speaks single words to direct another person’s actions, express negatives and make requests. We can use aided language input to model extended phrases like “want more,” “I want more” or “give me more” to teach this beginning communicator how to sequence words meaningfully. I wouldn’t demand “please” just yet.
Now let’s look at Stage 2 (MLU: 2.0). This child is putting 75-200+ words into 2-3 word phrases, but still producing a lot of single words. He’s added some new words to his repertoire, such as “need” and “all done.” He uses some fringe words, like “milk” and favorite toys such as “ball.” This child is directing another person, expressing negatives and making requests by combining words with phrases like “want more,” need help” and “want that.” Yes, you could begin expecting “please” but there are SO many other wonderful, powerful core words out there! I’d still wait before demanding it.
At Stage 3 (MLU: 2.75), things get really exciting! This child has a vocabulary ranging from 200 to 1,000 words and is beginning to use morphemes, the smallest units of meaning. Phrases and sentences are 2-3 words in length. Utterances might not be grammatically correct, but they really pack a punch. The child is communicating with pronouns, negatives, prepositions, simple past tense and plurals. He might say things like “he going,” “I coming in,” “my trains,” “she stopped” and “look it going.”
When a child reaches Stage 4 (MLU: 3.5), he’s using 1,000-2,000 words to produce utterances like “I fell down,” “don’t like,” “mommy’s drink,” “what is it?” and “I saw train.” He’s asking yes/no and simple “wh” questions and experimenting with irregular past tense verbs and possessive endings, as well linking verbs such as “is” and “are” correctly. He’s using adjectives to describe things.
At Stage 5 (MLU 4.0), the child is using 2,000-3,000 words–including the articles “a” and “an”–and acquiring new words all the time. He’s beginning to use verbs that end in “s” for third person regular present tense and has generally figured out the concept of past tense, using irregular past tense verbs to describe things that have happened. Utterances might look something like this: “mom’s car broke,” “dad was helping” and “he plays a game.”
When a child reaches Stage 6 (MLU: 4.5+), he has 3,000+ words in his vocabulary. He is able to use all parts of speech and segment words into the correct word order in sentences. He is producing complex sentences with conjunctions like “if” and “because” and can pose negative questions. Examples of sentences at this stage include: “I needed you to fix it,” “She’s afraid because it’s scary,” “That’s the folder you put it in” and “Where’s some food I can eat?”
Let’s go back to those early stages of communication where I’m often asked to help move children beyond using single words and requesting only. I think that’s where we often get stuck because requesting a favorite toy or snack is so motivating! But given consistent aided language stimulation (model, model, model!) and new communication objectives, children gradually see the power of other words. For example, although we parents and teachers might not enjoy experiencing it firsthand, rejection and cessation are two of my favorite objectives to address using target words like no, not, don’t and stop. The word STOP is key to self advocacy. If a child is at the level of single words using the communication device, imagine the opportunities to model expansion of those words:
- Stop it!
- Stop that!
- You stop!
- I stop!
- Stop + verb (stop talk)
- Object + stop (music stop)
Notice I didn’t say anything about “stop please.” Yes, it’s a possibility, but is it the best word choice in these early stages? I don’t think so, but perhaps I need to work more on my own manners.
There are so many opportunities to work on the word “stop” for the purpose of rejection and cessation and beyond. Keep in mind that the word “stop” is a powerful word with many meanings and we need to model the use of this word across many contexts and settings. Here are some ideas:
It’s been my experience that we spend so much time modeling and working to expand the utterances of children who use AAC that we often overlook what we expect their typical peers to say when we pose exactly the same question to them. We forget how we communicate on a day-to-day basis with our friends and family. As a result, we push for longer sentences every time and the end result isn’t always natural. Let me give you some examples:
“Please” isn’t my only pet peeve. I have another. We often insist that children insert names into their messages when it’s unnecessary and unnatural. For example, some teachers insist on being greeted with something like “Good morning, Mrs. Smith” or “Hello, Mr. Jones” while changing classes in hectic school hallways when the other students are not expected to use the adult’s name in a similar scenario. How often do we greet coworkers by name when we say hello at the coffee pot or in passing in the hallway?
Of course, it’s different when we’re working on attention-getting strategies. Then, it’s entirely appropriate and effective to begin a message with a name. For example, “Mrs. Smith, I need help” or “Mr. Jones, I don’t understand.” Of course, there’s nothing better than hearing “Mom, mom, mom, MOM!” Helping AAC users grab the attention of their friends and loved ones is fun and hugely rewarding. I recommend encouraging individuals to get into the habit of starting with the name first, then adding their message. That way, the listener is cued in and ready to listen to the rest of the message.
Why do we often demand DIFFERENT speech of our AAC communicators in natural conversations?
Let’s not demand lengthier sentences, artificially padded with words like “please” for the sake of increasing a child’s mean length of utterance. Instead, let’s help AAC communicators add meaning to their communication efforts with greater detail and more information. Let’s set realistic goals based on natural language development and model, model, model. Please and thank you.
Happy AAC Awareness Month!