SEL, Special Education

How to Be a Good Communication Partner

How to Be a Good Communication Partner

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, May/June 2024 Issue

By Laura Baukol

5 tips from an SLP to teach students to be more inclusive of classmates with communication disorders.

As a speech-language pathologist (SLP), I am an expert in communication disorders in children. My 15 years of experience has spanned from early intervention with our youngest communicators through public education with elementary and secondary students.

In these roles, I have learned that teaching peers, families, educators, and friends to be strong communication partners can be just as important as teaching new skills to the child with the disability.

Communication disabilities can be hard to see, so it’s often easy for others to ignore, interrupt, or even laugh at someone with a disability. People can have disabilities in any of the following areas of speech: articulation (pronunciation of sounds), fluency (stuttering), voice (loudness and quality), language (written or verbal), pragmatics (social and nonverbal communication), or hearing. That’s a lot of areas!

Communication disabilities affect a large portion of our population. In fact, nearly 1 in 12 children ages 3 to 17 has had a communication-related disorder. That means every elementary classroom in our public school system is bound to have at least one and likely several students with a communication disability. It also means that our general education students are regularly interacting with other students who have these disabilities.

People with communication disabilities can receive help from SLPs like me to improve their skills. At school, this comes in the form of services through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), along with accommodations inside the classroom.

Too often, society puts the burden on the person with a communication disorder to “fix” their disability. But communication is a two-way exchange. Its success depends on both participants. People without disabilities can work hard to be good communication partners because…

…it takes two to communicate!

Students with speech and language disorders communicate across a wide variety of modalities. Many use spoken language, but they may be hard to understand because of a stutter or an articulation disorder. Some use nonverbal communication like signs, gestures, picture cues, or an augmentative device. And many young children use a combination of verbal and nonverbal language. As teachers, it’s important to understand how the student communicates so that you’re able to pay close attention and respond appropriately.

Classroom teachers and special education staff can work together to create accommodations within the classroom that will allow students to be successful. Things such as providing visual schedules, breaking directions into small parts, and giving a student advance warning before calling on them in front of the class are examples of accommodations I often add to IEPs.

Making the classroom inclusive goes beyond implementing accommodations from an IEP, however. Teaching all students to be strong communication partners is one way schools can reduce the burden of communication from the child with a disability. Being a strong communication partner means showing respect, listening, asking questions, and developing empathy. These are all important and excellent life skills! I believe that teaching students to be strong communicators benefits everyone and fosters an environment of acceptance and inclusivity.

Check out my list of five ways to be a good communication partner. These strategies are simple and designed to be used with a variety of ages, from elementary students to adults. I’ve noticed that most of them align well with the “classroom rules” used in many elementary schools, which is a perfect jumping off point for introducing them to students.

Good communication partners use these skills:

1. Respect

People communicate in all kinds of different ways. It’s important to respect a person’s preferred way of communicating, whether it’s talking, signing, gesturing, using pictures, or using an augmentative alternative communication (AAC) device like a tablet or talker.

You can ask if you’re not sure about the best way to communicate with someone.

Remember to speak in your regular voice and never tease or make fun of someone for being different.


2. Listen

Good listening uses your whole body. Turn your body toward the person who is speaking, try to find a quiet spot, listen carefully, and watch for gestures and pointing as part of the conversation.

While it’s good to face the person who is talking to show you are listening, some people are not comfortable with eye contact. They may show they’re listening without looking you in the eye, and that’s okay.

3. Wait

You may need to wait a little longer when talking with someone with a communication difference. If they use an AAC device, it takes longer to enter the message for the device to speak. Or if they stutter, it can take time to get through a moment of stuttering.

Be patient, let them finish before you respond. You can try counting to ten in your head to help you wait.

Please don’t interrupt, speak for them, or tell them to hurry up.

4. Check In

If you don’t understand the person, you can try asking:

  1. “Can you say that again?”
  2. “Can you say it another way?”
  3. Yes/no questions to get more information. Like, “Did it happen at school?”
  4. “Can you show me?”

If they don’t understand you, these same strategies will work for them too!

5. Be Curious

Everyone has different interests, hobbies, likes, and dislikes. Take time to learn about each other. When you find something that you have in common, you can do it together—with or without words! You may make a new friend.

You Can Be a Good Communication Partner!

Use these steps for yourself, share them with your friends, teach them to your students and your own kids. Let’s create a more inclusive space for all our children.

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Did you know that May is Speech and Hearing Month in Canada? It’s also National Speech-Language-Hearing Month in America! These observances are meant to raise awareness about communication health and are also a great time to start practicing the skills outlined in this article.

For additional details and resources, visit:

Laura Elizabeth Baukol, MA, CCC-SLP is a bilingual speech-language pathologist working in public education in the Denver Metro area.