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Program Helps Children Improve Conversational Skills with Peers
By Vanessa Orr

For a number of children, learning to communicate effectively when in a group can be difficult. Some children have trouble answering questions appropriately; still others may have difficulty expressing their emotions effectively. Chatterbox Express, a curriculum-based program designed for school-age children, helps youngsters become more comfortable interacting with others. Offered through the Department of Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, the program is not only educational but fun.

"Because the kids are playing, I'm not really sure that they realize they're also learning something," explained Valerie Kirk, whose son Alex, 7, took part in the Chatterbox Express program last year. "Because of his ASD (autism spectrum disorder) diagnosis, I thought that it would be a good opportunity for him to be in a group therapy situation with other children with similar diagnoses or communication issues, but all he knows is that he's having fun."

The program, which is led by speech-language pathologists, helps children learn turn-taking skills, use greetings, follow rules and directions, develop problem-solving skills and answer questions appropriately. It also helps them understand parts of a conversation, maintain a topic of conversation and learn to express emotions effectively.

"While most of these children have near normal language skills, interacting with their peers is difficult," explained Melissa Forney, M-SLP, CCC-SLP, senior speech and language pathologist at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. "They have difficulty maintaining topics and responding to others' questions during conversations."

Each program session focuses on a specific topic, such as what to ask other children when meeting them for the first time. "It's hard for children to make new friends when they have difficulty initiating a conversation," said Forney. Children then play games and interact with each other to reinforce the theme. Activities are explained to parents at the end of each session so that they can work on goals in the home environment.

"I think that Alex is more comfortable in his ability to respond to other children; his behavior has gotten better in that he is more patient and has learned to wait his turn," said Kirk of the results that she's seen. "There is more back-and-forth with other children, which was essentially lacking before."

Agreed Forney, "We've had a lot of positive feedback from parents regarding their children's improved socialization with peers and their improved confidence."

Chatterbox Express sessions are held throughout the summer two times per week for five weeks at a cost of $300 per child. Sessions are held at the Center for Independence in Wexford and at Children's South Communications Disorders in Bethel Park and is open to all children who may be experiencing difficulties with social communication, regardless of diagnosis. More information is available at (412) 692-5580 or www.chp.edu.

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