Tips for Special-Needs Teachers | Communication: Receptive & Expressive Language

Photo by Arthur Crenshaw

by Tricia Gomez

Tip 1
Most special-needs students are in therapy and/or working with an individualized education program (IEP) in school. Their goals will fall into one or more of five developmental domains: cognitive, motor, self-help, social/emotional, and communication. Whether you’re teaching a special-needs class or have one student with learning differences, understanding these domains—and having a few tricks in your dance bag—will help you support students’ developmental needs and handle situations that arise in class.

Children with delayed communication abilities may have trouble with receptive and/or expressive language. Receptive language means our ability to understand what’s said to us. If your students can’t process your instructions, they’ll have a hard time following them, and may seem inattentive or disobedient.

For students struggling with receptive language, break instructions into small chunks and use simple language. Instead of saying, “Sally, put on your tap shoes, stand in line, and wait your turn to go across the floor,” say, “Sally, put on your tap shoes,” and give her time to do so. Then say, “Stand in line.” When she’s in line, say, “It’s your turn!”

Tip 2
Expressive language—the ability to communicate thoughts and needs effectivelycan also be a concern. You may encounter nonverbal students who are unable to use words or sign language; the frustration they often feel can cause difficult behavior.

For students struggling with expressive language, create a “communication board” and keep it close by should they need it during class. They can point to pictures of common classroom words, needs, situations, and feelings: for example, a toilet, a water bottle, someone holding her ears (“too loud!”); symbols for “yes,” “no,” and “need to take a break”; and happy, sad, worried, tired, or angry kids’ faces. Start class by asking how students are feeling, to give you an idea of what behavior to expect that day.


Tricia Gomez, creator of Hip Hop in a Box, is the global director of Rhythm Works Integrative Dance, which certifies teachers to work with special-needs students.