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Using Environmental Arrangements to Promote Social Communication

By Dr. Debra Leach, EdD,BCBA

Do you find that your child does not communicate with you to get desired items? Instead, your child may figure out how to get things independently without interacting with you first. While some may suggest this is a good thing because your child is acting independently, at the same time your child is missing out on many learning opportunities throughout the day when he or she can be communicating with you. Most typically developing children do interact with their caregivers to make requests throughout the day, and do not simply go get what they want or need all the time. These are opportunities that your child can have to learn a variety of communication and social interaction skills if you learn how to use environmental arrangements to encourage these interactions.

Environmental arrangements can include a variety of strategies that set up opportunities for your child to interact. One way to use environmental arrangements is to place desired items out of reach to encourage your child to communicate with you to request them. Out of reach can entail placing items on a shelf but still visible to the child or simply holding an item your child wants to encourage your child to ask you for it. Once your child indicates that he or she wants the item either by pointing, reaching, whining, attempting to grab, naming the item, etc. you can use that as an opportunity to work on a more advanced requesting skill. For example, if your child already can label desired items you can then use these opportunities to encourage your child to request desired items using simple sentences. Of course, other strategies will need to be used in addition to placing desired items out of reach such as embedded discrete trials, prompting/fading procedures, time-delay, and modeling/request imitation.

Another way to use environmental arrangements is to give small amounts of desired items to encourage your child to ask for more using social communication skills. For example, if your child is having a snack you may only give four or five goldfish crackers instead of a whole plate full. When your child finishes what you gave, an opportunity to request more presents itself. Depending on your child’s present skill level, at that time you can work on teaching your child to point for more, request “more,” use two word utterances to request more, use a simple sentence to request more, or make eye-contact while requesting more. Again, you may need to use additional strategies once the opportunity presents itself such as embedded discrete trials, prompting/fading procedures, time-delay, and modeling/request imitation.

Doing something unexpected is another way to use environmental arrangements. For example, when your child is watching a video, you may come over and shut the television off by “accident.” This provides an opportunity for your child to request that you put the TV back on. A final way to think about environmental arrangements would be to reduce stimuli in the environment that may be distracting to your child. For example, if you are playing with toys with your child, you may want to only have one or two toys available as opposed to a whole room full of toys at your child’s disposal. Too many toys can be over-stimulating for your child causing your child to disengage. Other types of stimuli that can be reduced to promote interaction includes noise level, amount of people engaging with your child, the amount  or type of light in the room, and for some kids even smells can be distracting.

For further assistance with environmental arrangements, parents and teachers can consult with a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA). BCBA’s can provide hands-on training and support to help parents and teachers learn how to use environmental arrangements effectively as well as a variety of other effective teaching strategies.

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The smallest change can have the most profound effect