Effective Communication Strategies to Use in Small Groups
and Throughout the Day


Improving adult-child communication in early childhood settings is critical to improving social skills, decreasing problem behaviors, and increasing learning opportunities for young children with autism and other disabilities. Below are a few strategies you can use throughout the day, whether you are a parent, a classroom teacher, or a practitioner who works with young children in homes.



Throughout the day at school and at home, we require many things of children with and without disabilities, with relatively few choice-making opportunities. For example, we may require them to eat, go to the bathroom, go outdoors, and rest at specific times and within certain parameters (e.g., must stay in the kitchen to eat, must stay outside for the entire 30 minute recess). Sometimes, we also may have even more requirements for young children with autism and other disabilities (e.g., participating in 1:1 tasks with an adult). Thus, when it is possible, providing choices to young children is preferred. Below are a few examples of the types of choices that we can give young children:

  1. Group composition. If a young child needs to learn a specific skill, teachers often engage in “pull out” instruction, even within inclusive classrooms. Some children, however, would prefer to learn in small groups with peers (e.g., pairs). Giving a child the choice of working in a group (and a choice of partner, if feasible) is a great way to include choice when the activity type is not a feasible choice.
  2. Order of tasks. Children may not be able to make choices regarding non-negotiable tasks, but we can often ask children in what order they would like to complete the tasks. For example, if a child needs to clean up an area and wash his hands, we might tell him the requirements, but then ask which one he wants to do first. You can also do this within tasks (e.g., cut and color during an art task).
  3. EBIP_preference assessment_paired stimulus_choiceTiming of tasks. Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense for a child to choose order of tasks (e.g., children should engage in toileting and hand washing in a specific order). In these cases, offering a choice of timing is preferable. For example, you might ask a child if he wants to “go to the potty” in one minute or two minutes. It’s even better if you provide a visual timer to show the child what the two choices mean!
  4. Choices during small groups. When teaching children in small groups, a variety of choices can be used. For example, children can choose reinforcers to earn at the end of the session (e.g., stickers, stamps). If you use tokens for correct responding, you might have several token types or colors, and allow each child to choose a specific type (e.g., princess tokens, red tokens). When using systematic prompting procedures (see Progressive Time Delay and System of Least Prompts), children nearly always have a choice regarding whether or not they need help to respond correctly.

Another note about choices—be sure to carefully say what you mean. If a child must go to the bathroom, do not ask, “Do you want to go to the bathroom?” Likewise, if a choice is available, don’t present a task direction and then allow for choice. For example, if you say, “Go to the bathroom,” you must follow through with completion of the task immediately, even if the child could have gone later). When you present a task direction without a choice and then don’t follow through, the child learns that instructions don’t always need to be followed. In either situation, saying something like “Do you want to go to the bathroom in one or two minutes?” solves the problem.

ResponsivenessEBIP_small group_communication

Young children in general, and children with autism and other disabilities in particular,
have immature communication repertoires compared to those of older children and adults. Sometimes, this results in miscommunications and problem behavior. Being responsive to child communication is one way to improve child communication skills and prevent problem behaviors. A few specific strategies are outlined below.

1. When a child makes a request, respond and reinforce the request attempt. Young children learn to make requests in early infancy (e.g., whining to communicate they would like to be picked up), and for most children, more mature and appropriate requests (e.g., saying “uh” with arms reaching upward to communicate
that they want to be picked up; eventually saying “Can you pick me up please?”) are evidence-based-instructional-practices-hug-2learned quickly and without considerable instruction and practice
opportunities. Sometimes young children, particularly children with autism and related disorders, learn these customary requests more slowly than other children. For children who have not yet mastered making typical requests with age-appropriate language, it is important to respond and reinforce request attempts. For example, when a four year old child gestures to an object he cannot reach, an adult should notice the request, respond by giving the child the appropriate words (“The cars!”), and reinforce his attempt by allowing him to gain access to the cars. This reinforcement teaches the child that his initiation attempts are valuable.

2. When a child makes a comment, respond with an expansion. When children comment on their actions (“I have a big block!” or ongoing environment (“It’s loud!”), adults can improve a child’s access to more complex sentence structures, vocabulary, and concepts.

EBIP_Responsive Communication_Chart

3. When a child engages in problem behavior. Children engage in problem behavior to communicate. Several common reasons for problem behavior include: (a) to get access to adult attention (positive or negative!), (b) to get access to an item or activity, and (c) to escape attention or an activity. People working with young children should always consider problem behavior as a communication attempt, and should determine what skill the child needs to learn in order to reduce the need for the problem behavior or what environmental modification makes the behavior unnecessary. To learn more about the ways problem behavior serves as communication and ways to develop appropriate replacement communication behaviors, see Challenging Behavior as Communication.

To cite this page (APA 6th edition):

  • Ledford, J.R. (2016). Effective communication strategies to use in small groups and throughout the day. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from http://ebip.vkcsites.org/effective-communication-strategies-to-use-in-small-groups-and-throughout-the-day