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Supportive communication
Girl being presented with a book

It is only because [the child] is treated as a communicator that [s/he] learns the essential art of communication.

Newson, 1978

A child with learning difficulties may find it very hard to communicate, so it is important to learn some strategies to help overcome barriers.

The language barrier

Think about a time when you found it hard to make yourself understood (eg when speaking to a native-speaker on a holiday abroad).

  • What did you do to help make yourself understood? What encouraged you to keep trying?

Watch the video extract of 'Our Favourite Things'.

  • As you view the clip, what helps you to understand what the young people are trying to communicate?
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The pivot word
'no more pie' card

Introducing 'pivot words' can empower the child to have early control in situations, eg by making requests for a situation to continue by using 'more' or 'again'.

Pivot words can also enable children to combine ideas, eg 'brick gone'.

Using pivot words

Watch this video in which a child with PMLD uses a pivot word 'more' on a switch to control when and if his carer gives him his next spoonful of dinner.

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Some golden rules

Click on each of the following for some ideas on how to encourage communication.

Get to know the child and what they can do. See the world through their eyes. Be aware of what they like and dislike and use their interests as the basis for developing a shared interaction. Make sure everyone working with the child shares this understanding.


React to what the child does. Don't keep talking to or at the child, naming objects, commenting on the child's movements and actions. Instead, be a part of the experience and look for cues from the child. Make sure that the experience is an active rather than passive one for the child.


Let the child take the lead. Guiding without leading is a skill that takes time to develop. Know when to stand back and watch.


Try to recognise when a child is communicating and respond appropriately. If you do, the child will begin to appreciate the power of language. If a child's attempts to communicate are misunderstood repeatedly, they are likely to give up and withdraw.


Don't impose your own personality.

Start from where the child is, eg respond to the child reflecting the same mood and at the same volume.


If the child has a routine, stick to it. A child will become familiar with the communication associated with care activities, eg holding out an arm for their coat to be put on, and will anticipate actions and respond appropriately.


It takes a child with learning difficulties longer to understand and to respond. By allowing for this, the child will gain confidence and realise that they can influence what happens next. Repeating the same activities will encourage anticipation and recognition.


Make interaction part of daily life. Encourage communication at all times. Don't associate it with or confine it to particular activities.


Although you shouldn't ignore weaknesses – these are important areas for development – build mainly on children's strengths to give them confidence and motivation.


Recognise when the child has had enough. There is no point in persisting if the child has lost motivation. Try to recognise the warning signs and stop at a high point, rather than when the child has lost interest.


Careful attention is needed in group situations.

Consider the size of the group. If a child in the group has a sensory or physical impairment, make sure they are sitting in an appropriate position within the group. Give the child enough time to respond.


Carefully move from one activity to the next to help the child to anticipate change.

The child needs to be able to anticipate events. Bear in mind that a child can be confused by sudden changes of activities. A daily routine can help reduce confusion and anxiety over a change.


Evaluate what you do as well as how the child responds.

Realising what you did well and less well will help both you and the child to communicate better in the future.


Get to know
the child

Let the child direct

Guide don't lead

Be observant

Don't impose


Be patient


Be positive


Group situations

Help the child