Inspiring Communication

We’re thrilled to share today’s guest post by Rachel Madel.  She coined the phrase “inspire, don’t require,” and today she’s sharing her suggestions for inspiring children to communicate.


Speech therapist giving a smiling child a hug.“Inspire, Don’t Require”

It’s a phrase I frequently use while coaching clinicians, teachers and parents.

The phrase is catchy, it rhymes and it’s a powerful message that needs to be in the forefront of our minds when working with children who have complex communication needs.

There’s two parts to this phrase, but I like to start with “don’t require” because it tells us first what we need to stop doing.

There’s nothing that makes me cringe more than watching an adult force a child’s hand to participate in an activity. I see this time and time again when observing children in classrooms, at home and in the community to varying degrees, and across every discipline.

During sensory activities:

“Put your hands in and touch it”

(adult submerging a child’s hands into a bin full of slime)

During self-care activities: 

“Let’s wash our hands

 (adult vigorously rubbing a child’s hands to kill those germs)

During transitions:

“You can move your body, or I’ll move it for you”

(adult picking child up and moving them to a new activity)

And don’t get me wrong— there’s a time and a place for this type of instruction. We start doing this with young babies to begin fostering independence and skill-building. Children might never learn how to write the letters in their name, brush their teeth or tie their shoes without an adult guiding their little hands to learn those motor plans.   The problem lies when the lines become blurred between “helping” a child learn a new skill and “requiring” them to participate against their will. And children with complex communication needs are particularly vulnerable to this interaction, simply because they may not have the capacity to say “no… stop… get off me… I hate this.”

So when it comes to teaching communication to children I shout “Inspire, don’t require” from the rooftops.

We don’t have the capacity to force verbal children to talk… so why, then, would it be acceptable to take a child’s hand and activate their words on their device or tell them what to say in any given situation?

And more importantly… how does requiring a child to say specific words actually translate into independent communication? Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.

That’s where the “Inspire” piece of this catch phrase comes into play.

As the adults who are responsible for teaching children how to communicate, it’s our responsibility to INSPIRE. This often requires us to put aside our own agenda and approach a child with genuine curiosity. It means focusing on having fun, before we even begin to think about specific language targets.

In my own practice, I’m on an endless pursuit for the novel, the interesting, the weird, the surprising and the silly because those are the types of activities that inspire a child to communicate in an authentic way that’s not coerced or artificial.

My best sessions are ones where I can elicit smiles and laughs from activities and games that are so AWESOME that the act of communication shifts from becoming a demand to becoming a motivator, where successful communication is its own reward.. It’s in these moments (where a child is fully present, engaged and excited) that children learn the true power of language.

So how does the principle of “Inspire, don’t Require” translate into our clinical practice with children who have complex communication needs?

Here are some guidelines I like to follow…

  • Start with a Preference Assessment:

The best way to find out what a child LOVES is to ask! We do this when we first meet a child, but I make a point to check in regularly with families about a child’s favorite games, toys, and foods because they often change over time. Another strategy I love is putting a variety of toys on my therapy table and simply observing what a child gravitates towards. And don’t be afraid to incorporate non-traditional items into the mix. I’ve had children on my caseload who get excited about paper clips, headbands and saran wrap (just to name a few) so I try to keep an open mind and constantly cycle new activities into the mix. (Graff & Karsten, 2012)

  • The Power of Protests:

Sometimes children’s highest motivations come from communicating what they don’t like or don’t want to do, so I prioritize teaching language like “no”, “stop” and “I need a break.” Children are empowered by the realization that they have control over their environment and this is a powerful motivator. But what happens when children decide they always “need a break” or start saying “no” in response to every activity? I remind communication partners to encourage a child’s protests, even if you can’t necessarily honor them. This affords us the opportunity to respect and validate the child. So if a child asks for a break prematurely I might say something like: “I know you want to take a break right now (validating), but we’re going to do one more.” ,

  • Create Communicative Temptations

After we find motivating items or activities we can set up a routine to establish an expectation. A simple example is using the phrase “Ready, set… go!”  during an activity like being pushed on a swing or blowing bubbles. Once a child is primed for the routine you pause to see what happens if you change it or discontinue. I also like to be mindful of setting up the environment so that highly motivating reinforcers are out of reach or a in a small clear container. If you’re using technology like an iPad or phone, creating a password allows for an additional opportunity for a child to ask you for help. Have a session where a child is losing steam?  I’ll often show a clip of a favorite song or video just long enough for a child to pique  interest and then I’ll turn the device off. The magic happens when we can take a child’s excitement and teach them how to communicate in order to make that excitement last.  (Wetherby & Prizant, 1989)

  • Give Children Space & Time

Once an extremely motivating communication temptation is established, we need to practice giving children enough space to formulate their thoughts into language. Language processing takes time and practice and if we jump in too early we rob children of the opportunity to become autonomous communicators. Yes, we need to be providing an immersive language environment full of modeling, but we need to balance this with simply waiting to see what a child comes up with on their own. I’ll admit I’m guilty of filling dead air with verbal prompts and cues so I give myself a visual reminder by printing out a small least-to-most prompting hierarchy, and placing it on my therapy table. I also use a tally counter app to track how many times a child communicates spontaneously throughout my session. This keeps me motivated and intentional about the activities I’m presenting and the level of prompting I’m using. (Finke, E. et al., Feb 2017)

If our goal is to create autonomous and independent AAC communicators (which itshould be!), we need to remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. Often times the reason we jump to REQUIRING communication from kids is because we (the adults) are impatient. We want the hit of instant gratification that demonstrates our teaching efforts are working. We rationalize to ourselves that the only way a child will learn is if we show them how and make them practice.

Going forward I encourage you to think critically about the communication demands you might not even realize that you’re placing on a child and instead start thinking through the lens of “Inspire, don’t require. ” When we do our job in the INSPIRE department, you’ll find the need to REQUIRE language slowly diminishes.


Finke, E. H., Davis, J. M., Benedict, M., Goga, L., Kelly, J., Palumbo, L., … Waters, S. (2017). Effects of a Least-to-Most Prompting Procedure on Multisymbol Message Production in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder Who Use Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Am J Speech Lang Pathol, 26(1), 81-98

Graff, R. B., & Karsten, A. M. (2012). Assessing preferences of individuals with developmental disabilities: a survey of current practices. Behavior analysis in practice5(2), 37–48. doi:10.1007/BF03391822

Wetherby, A., & Prizant, B. (1989). The expression of communicative intent: Assessment issues. Seminars in Speech and Language,10, 77-9


Photo of Rachel Madel smiling.Rachel Madel is a Los Angeles based speech-language pathologist who is on a mission to help empower parents and educators by demystifying the use of AAC for children with autism. Follow her on Facebook (, Instagram ( or YouTube to get instant access to resources that help support children with complex communication needs. Rachel also co-hosts “Talking with Tech,” (  a weekly podcast that helps professionals and caregivers discover innovative technologies and learn implementation strategies for students using AAC.


Jill E Senner, PhD, CCC-SLP

Thank you for reading this blog post. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of USSAAC members and board members. No endorsement by USSAAC is implied regarding any device, manufacturer, resource or strategy mentioned. We would love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts with a comment below or send a message through our contact page.

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