Communication Strategies When Working With Children With Special Needs

For many children with special needs, communication can be an area of challenge. Successful communication may be particularly challenging in your programs, where you are also responding to the diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds of newcomer children and their families.

Think about how you communicate.

Spoken language is only one of the many ways you have to communicate with the newcomer children in your care. Visual cues and music can also effectively communicate the expectations, routines and choices in your program. This list of communication styles and strategies gives you the tools you need to engage all of the newcomer children in your care.

  • Use non-verbal cues – sounds, actions, eye contact, facial expressions and gestures.
  • Use signs and/or gestures while using spoken language. For example, pat the floor with your hand while you tell the child to “sit down please.”
  • Create a consistent daily routine. Make a visual schedule with pictures showing the activities that will happen that day, and the sequence of events. An easy way to do this is to use pictures from a catalogue or magazine. When possible, it is usually best to use real photos rather than cartoon images.
  • Hold up objects or point to them as you talk.
  • Use simple language when offering choices – or, even better, show the child their choices! Instead of asking a child “What do you want to play with?” you might simply hold up two objects and say “Blocks or bubbles?” Say less – shorten and simplify your sentences.
  • Emphasize important words – use repetition.
  • Be consistent – try to use the same words every time you do an activity or routine.
  • Speak slowly – use longer pauses between words.
  • Get down at the child’s level.
  • Be warm and welcoming – the child may not understand what you are saying, but make sure that your body language is welcoming, and be sure to smile.
  • Words are very powerful – it is important to always use positive messages. Instead of saying “no running,” say “walk please.”
  • Be specific and use clear language – rather than saying “sit properly,” say “sit with your bum on the chair,” and visually show them with your hand.
  • For more ideas and information on how you can use visual cues in your program, visit

Think about how you help newcomer children to communicate their opinions, wants and needs.

  • Help the child to feel comfortable and welcome. Ask the family for words from their home language that would be useful to know.
  • Ask the parents if the child uses any specific signs or gestures to signal basic needs such as toileting, hunger or thirst.
  • Help children ask for what they want or need by modelling a word or simple phrase and then pausing to let them try to repeat the words.
  • When a child is unable to use words to communicate, offer an alternative means of communication, like using a sign or a picture.
  • The children in your care may use sounds or gestures while they learn to use words. Continue to interpret nonverbal messages by saying it as the child would if they could. For example, if a child points to the juice at snack time and says “Dah,” you can say “More JUICE! You want more JUICE!”
  • Be patient and allow extra time for children with special needs to respond.
  • Ask open-ended questions that encourage more than a yes or no response.
  • Imitate and expand on what the child says by turning it into a simple phrase or sentence or by adding some new ideas.
  • If there is a caregiver in your program who speaks the child’s home language, she should be encouraged to use it with the child. It is important, though, to have a consistent approach to these interactions. For example, the caregiver may find it helpful to always communicate with the child in the home language first, and then repeat in English. When the child communicates in the home language, she could always repeat the words back in English. The child might combine the two languages in a sentence, but the caregiver should keep the two languages separate.

Successful communication is the sending and receiving of messages and ideas, but the relationships that you develop with the newcomer children and their families is the foundation. With some children it takes time, commitment and perseverance to reach the point of consistently successful communication. Practising all of these strategies will help you to create a supportive and inclusive environment where all of the newcomer children in your care can become confident and successful communicators.


Allen, Paasche, Langford, & Nolan (2006). Inclusion in Early Childhood Programs: Children with Exceptionalities, (4th ed.), Toronto (ON): Nelson.
Ryerson University, School of ECE, GRC Staff, April 2009.
Weitzman, E., Greenberg, J. (2002). Learning Language and Loving It, (2nd ed.), Toronto (ON): The Hanen Centre Publications.

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