My child can no longer attend school or therapies due to COVID-19, and we are staying home to avoid transmission of the virus. I’d like my child to remain connected to her grandparents and other family members during this uncertain time, but she isn’t great at talking on the phone. Her grandparents would be so happy to be able to talk with her. Is there anything I can do to help her learn to have phone conversations?
Answered by Chante Stoeckley, MEd, BCBA, LBA and David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D
Association for Science in Autism Treatment
Yes! Maintaining social relationships while keeping physical distance is both incredibly important yet difficult. But by working on telephone skills with your child, you can both help her maintain important social and conversational skills and also help deepen her relationship with her grandparents and other family members. Since we don’t know your child, we can’t give specific advice, but we’ll share examples of skills that could be taught and a variety of teaching strategies you could use. Finally, we’ll share detailed examples of how you could put it all together.
Many social and pragmatic language skills go into a telephone conversation. You might know exactly which ones your daughter needs to work on based on your observations of her existing phone conversations. If not, you could watch for this during your next few phone calls to identify strengths and deficits. You can also reach out to your child’s teacher, speech therapist, or behavior analyst, and get their input. Generally, consider starting with some emerging skills (ones that your child can already do to some extent but not really well or not consistently) instead of brand new and difficult skills. This may allow faster progress and more enjoyable phone conversations. Here are some skills that would lend themselves to phone practice. Some of them are skills in using the phone itself; others are general conversation skills that can be practiced on the phone. These examples cover skills for a range of ages and skill levels.
Specific Phone Skills
General Conversation Skills
Once you’ve identified a skill or two, plan out how to practice it. Consider the format and timing of the calls, how you can prepare up front for success, and how to actually teach the skill before and during the call. Since your child will be practicing with a familiar family member, you might even consider redoing the call immediately so that prompted skills can be practiced independently. Here are some ideas in each of those categories. As stated above, keep in mind that since we don’t know your child and can’t give specific advice, it’s up to you and your team to choose which strategies you believe will work best.
Format & Timing
Planning & Preparation
Practice & Call
Putting it Together – Early Language Skills
Here’s an example of how you could put a number of these recommendations together. Let’s imagine that your child is an early learner and you want her to learn to dial the phone, and ask and answer some easy questions.
Format & Timing: She usually sees her grandfather a few times a week and she loves making silly faces with him, so you start by calling him. Since seeing her face is important to her, you choose to use Skype on a table for a bi-weekly call that is scheduled right after dinner on Mondays and Thursdays.
Planning & Preparation: For the skill of dialing, you add pictures of people in her life to your Skype account, so she can tap on the picture of the person she wants to call. For the skill of answering questions, you know that she sometimes, but not always, answers “who” and “what” questions about things and people in her immediate environment like answering, “Who is that?” when a sibling walks in or “What is it?” when she has something interesting. You decide to practice these questions on the phone. You aren’t sure how to teach her to ask questions, so you reach out to her teacher, who suggests that her grandfather put some fun items in a box, and you prompt her to ask, “What’s that?”, so her grandfather will answer and pull the surprise item from the box. Then you talk to her grandfather, and set up a plan for him to have a box with several interesting items in it to talk about.
Practice & Call: During the call, grandfather occasionally brings the box on screen and makes a leading statement like, “Ohh… look what I have!” and waits for her to ask “what is it?” before pulling out the item dramatically. You also ask him to engage in silly faces with her during the call, especially right after she asks or answers a question, in order to reinforce it. You’ve arranged for other household members to walk through the room or make funny noises occasionally, to provide her grandfather the opportunity to ask questions like “Who is that?”.
Putting it Together – Advanced Social Skills
Here’s another example for an older child learning more advanced social skills.
Format & Timing: When she makes a call, she typically starts talking about her interests immediately, so you decide to teach her to start a conversation using the following steps: identify self (e.g., “Hi this is Sarah”), check if it’s a good time to talk (e.g., “Do you have time to chat?”), and ask the conversational partner a small talk question (e.g., “How are you?” or “What are you doing?”). You also have observed that she doesn’t respond to indirect statements or someone’s tone of voice. You noticed this last week, when she asked her brother if he wanted to play a game, and after he sighed heavily and said “oh, fine”, she seemed unaware of his disinterest and started the game enthusiastically.
Planning & Preparation: You sit down with her to develop visual cues for both skills. For the first one of starting a call, you make a list of the steps, and let her write in the examples. You also put a checkbox next to each step so you can mark it off as she does it. For the second skill, you and she make a list together of examples of what someone might say/do in response to an idea or request, what it really means, and how to respond.
Practice & Call: Then you decide to role play together. With the visuals right in front of her, you take turns pretending to be different family members and friends on a call. When the opportunities to use the skills come up, you pause the call immediately after each one to give her feedback on what she did well and what she could do differently. Before the first call with a family member, you share with them the fact that she’s working on reading between the lines, and coach them on providing opportunities for her to practice. You have her put the conversation partner on speakerphone, so that you can prompt by pointing the appropriate part of the visual cue as needed.
As shown above, telephone skills are complex and multifaceted so there are plenty of opportunities for new skill development. As you consider new skills to teach, revisit the suggestions above and think about what types of teaching strategies are best suited for that new target. If your child struggles, consider whether there are perquisite skills that should be targeted first. As always, reach out to the relevant providers on your team for guidance. We hope that, while remaining physically distant, these ideas will help to continue to build your child’s social communication skills and help the family stay socially connected.
Citation for this article:
Stoeckley, C., & Celiberti, D. (2020). Clinical Corner: How can I teach telephone skills at home? Science in Autism Treatment, 17(4).