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5 reasons to talk less and listen more with autism

5 Reasons to Talk Less and Listen More in the Special Education Classroom

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Have you ever thought about the importance of being quiet in your classroom?  We all know the importance of modeling language for learners with language disorders and this often makes us think that we need to be talking all the time in our classrooms.  Couple that with the need to provide reminders and prompts and often times we find ourselves talking throughout the day.

5 reasons to talk less and listen more with autism

However, I have a challenge for you.

[Tweet “Stop sometime and listen to your classroom. What do you hear? “]

Do you hear children talking to adults and to each other? Or do you hear lots of adults talking?  What are they saying?  Is most of the language you hear from adults to students? Is it primarily focused on what the adults want the students to do?  If the answer is yes, is that the language we want to model for our students?

So contrary to (or actually in line with) the idea that we should be modeling language for our students, I want to share 5 reasons why we should make a concerted effort to be quiet and really think about the language we use around our students based on the language we want to hear from them.

1. Listening

Communication is a two-way street and we often work very hard to help our students understand that they are only communicating with others if someone is listening (i.e., they have a communicative partner).  We need to model listening for them in the same way we need to model speech.  This is particularly important if the student struggles with language.

[Tweet “If we are talking, we aren’t listening.”]

5 Reasons to Talk Less and Listen More in a Special Education Classroom--Autism Classroom Resources. Keep Calm and Wait Expectantly2. Expectant Waiting

For many of our students, language is difficult to process and speech (or other types of communication) are difficult to formulate. Consequently, they need time to process the information from our language and formulate their response.  This means we need to wait quietly.  Have you ever had someone ask you a question and then immediately start talking before you could answer it?  Isn’t that aggravating? It’s like they don’t value our answer enough for wait for it.  We don’t want to send that message to students that we are trying to get to communicate.  So, we need to wait, quietly, for them to respond.

3. Modeling Only the Right Language

I don’t mean the “right” language in the sense that it is appropriate.  I mean that we need to be modeling language that is only 1 or 2 steps ahead of where the student is communicating.  So, if Mandy is talking in 2-word phrases, we would model 3-word phrases, not complex sentences to explain what to do or comment.  If we are working on Jake commenting on activities in his environment, we would model commenting for him (e.g., “Look, it’s yellow!” not “Oh look, it’s a yellow duck. It says quack quack and swims in the water.”).

Modeling Language with AAC in Talk less and listen more in the Special Education Classroom Autism Classroom ResourcesAlong those same lines, we forget that for our students using augmentative communication strategies or devices, we need to model their AAC strategy.  If that’s Picture Exchange, we need to pair pictures with our language.  If it’s a speech generating device, we need to model the language on their device.  While we are typically pairing speech with that model, we still need to minimize our language and use the AAC to be an effective model the student can understand.

4. Silence Enriches Language

Finally, while it seems to be the opposite, decreasing our speech and language can help to highlight when we do speak.  Ever know that person in the group who doesn’t say much, but when he does we listen?  That’s who we want to be in the classroom.  If we are talking all the time, people, including our students, stop listening.  The more that we use our speech only when it is needed and in a thoughtful manner regarding what we are saying, the more attention students will learn to pay to our models.

5. Avoid Prompt Dependence

I’ve talked about prompt dependence in previous posts, but one of the elements we have to be very careful about is that many students with autism pair our verbal directions with the task in such a way that it becomes part of the steps.  So, if I’m teaching Jenny to wash her hands and I tell her each step, I might be surprised to find that when I tell her to wash her hands and don’t tell her each step, she stalls out in the middle of the task.  Often our students don’t focus on the relevant cues in the learning task and learn the wrong thing (i.e., my telling Jenny to get the soap instead of Jenny connecting having gotten her hands wet and knowing that the next step is to get the soap because her hands are wet).  We want to make sure that we use language in a way to facilitate independence.  When we verbally walk a student through a task, we do the opposite and she learns to rely on our verbal cues.  We are often better off giving the direction for the whole task (e.g., wash your hands) instead of verbally telling them each step and having to do that each time they do the task.  It’s also why we use only nonverbal prompts in independent structured work systems….so that it is easier for the instructor to fade herself out and because the students can do the tasks independently.

Certainly other issues about talking in the classroom can be addressed as well including the need to make sure that when the adults are talking in the room they are talking to the students, not about the students to each other.  We also need to make sure that adults talking to each other modeling language students will use or talking about what’s happening in the room, not what they are planning for dinner. And we also have to make sure that we are not talking about the student’s behavior to other staff or talking about other students when we are working with the student.   Check out this post for some thoughts on all of these issues.

Finally, while I certainly am not advocating that we should not talk to our students or that we shouldn’t give them directions.  We have to strike a balance.  Research indicates that people talk less to people who are nonverbal, meaning that those who need to hear models most, hear them less.  I am saying we should take a moment every so often to think about what we are saying and whether we are building independence in communication and across the set of skills we are teaching.  I’ll be back later this week with some ideas about how we can manage the classroom staff (including self-monitoring ourselves) to reduce needless talking so we can focus on providing good models.  In the meantime, I would love to know how you address using good models for language in the classroom, here or on Facebook.

Until next time,

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3 thoughts on “5 Reasons to Talk Less and Listen More in the Special Education Classroom”

  1. A really great read and something that I think may come naturally to us who work with autism day-to-day may not actually be something that comes to mind of those new to it or just getting used to it/settling etc. Some really great tips here. I love the part about not talking about the students in front of them.. i think a lot of people think that because they don’t speak it means they don’t hear..

    Teaching Autism


      I absolutely agree that people think if the student can’t talk he/she can’t hear or understand. Thanks for reading!

  2. Pingback: 3 Ways to Get Adult Language in the Classroom Back on Track with a Freebie | Autism Classroom Resources

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