Can Symbols Help my Child’s Communication?

People often get confused about the purpose of using symbols to support their child’s language development and are unsure how to use them.

People often get confused about the purpose of using symbols to support their child’s language development and are unsure how to use them.

What do we mean by a symbol?

A symbol is a black and white or coloured drawing that represents a word. It could be a photograph, a picture, or any other visual representation of a word. It might be in physical form e.g. something in a book or on paper or it could be on an electronic device like a computer or tablet.  Different children, and different families, often have different preferences around which format they prefer. This can simply be personal preference, or relate to how symbols are being used, or to which setting they are being used in.

How can they be used to support language development? 


    Their first use is to support children’s understanding. For example, drawers in a nursery or playroom might have a picture of dolls, or bricks or whatever is in them on the front. These symbols in the environment help children to understand what goes where. Or there could be a symbol on the toilet door or the door that leads to outside.  

    Nurseries often use a ‘Symbolic Timetable’ to show children what is happening ‘now’ and what will happen ‘next’ or ‘later in the day’, or ‘when is it lunchtime’, or ‘when is it home time’. These symbols help children to understand the routine of the day.  At home we might also use them to help the child understand ‘now’ and ‘next’. So a picture of a doll, then a pair of hands might indicate we’re going to play with our dolls and then we will wash our hands for dinner. Other symbols may also be used to help children understand when their behaviour is acceptable. Traffic lights on a lanyard may be used for this or you might use a symbol to represent  when it’s ‘time to chill out’ or ‘stop’ when emotions run high.

    These symbols are all environmental, they are things we want to communicate with the child and the symbols aid understanding.

    2. Expression

    Symbols can also be used to enable a child to express themselves. So the symbols might represent things that the child may want to tell us, things that they might want to eat, or drink, or play with, or places they may want to go, or they might represent how the child is feeling. Some people make a board of emotions available to the child for this purpose.

    The symbols can be in any form, a computer programme, a book the child can take symbols out of, a board on the wall, or a pod book where the child can point to the symbol they want to convey. In this instance the symbols all represent something the child ‘wants to tell us’. It is important to be clear whether you are using symbols to aid ‘understanding’ or ‘expression’ as the two sometimes get confused.

    3. To help a child learn how to interact (PECS)

    Thirdly symbols can be used to teach a child how to ‘use a person’ to get what they want and to have an exchange of information to get what they want. This is a very specific way of helping children to interact using symbols known as Picture Exchange Communication System, (PECS).

    PECS is a very early step in helping a child to communicate. If you have a child whose attention is very difficult to get, who isn’t very interested in communicating,  who doesn’t respond to their name, who doesn’t  ask you anything, or show you anything, and it feels like an uphill battle to get on the same page as them then PECS may be beneficial.  These children may request something but they do it by getting your hand and putting it on the things you want, there is no exchange or interaction in order for them to get something, for them it’s about them getting the item rather than them asking you to get the item. It is two way communication and we want three way, the child to ask you and for you to get something. PECS teaches the child that 3 way interaction which is the real basis for communication. 

    PECS starts with an object the child is motivated by (it could be a toy, it could be food).  The desired item is placed in front of the child and a symbol representing it placed beside them. Since they haven’t yet learned to ask for things, the child’s first natural reaction is often to reach over and grab the object they want. They know they want to get it and that how to get it is to grab it. PECS aims to teach them the in between step of ‘asking’ that involves interaction and connection with another person.  Two adults are required. One sits behind the child and the other in front of them. As the child goes to reach for the object, the person who is behind them (the ‘prompter’), helps them to physically move their hand to the symbol or token and to give it to the person in front of them. The child is then given the object they want in exchange. Children who aren’t interacting with adults at all very quickly learn that the symbol is the key and begin to pick up the symbol  on their own, hand it over, and get the item they want. 

    PECS follows a very tightly structured programme to begin to help the child to generalise this skill. At first there might only be 3 or 4 things that the child is motivated to obtain but the process helps the child to, become more persistent, move around the room, go over to a book, select the right symbol (so they ask for ‘Cheerios’ when they want cereal and the light when it’s getting dark), and to begin to build up sentences and all the while it’s based on them initiating. They also hear the words with the symbols and quite often this helps their speech to come along, but the main purpose is to build that initial communication for children who find that very difficult .  If you have a child who isn’t interacting, who doesn’t answer to their name , who finds it hard to pay attention to you, or show much of an interest it would be worthwhile talking to a speech therapist about PECS or going online and finding out a bit more about what you can do at home. 

    If you have a preschool child who has some delay in speech and language don not hesitate to introduce a symbol system to support them whether it be to aid their comprehension, expression or their interaction.