|EXPANDING MEALTIME COMMUNICATION
children try to guide the feeder by communicating their
needs and wants at mealtimes. They will use the movements
and actions of the body that are easiest or most
familiar. This may include the spitting of food, knocking
food off a table, taking food from another child, pushing
the head back, or coughing and choking. Many of these
activities can occur as the child tries to communicate.
Because they are not comfortable for the feeder, they are
often described as negative behaviors, and the child is
restrained or punished. When communication signals are
ignored or misinterpreted repeatedly, some children give
up and tune out as they move toward a pattern of learned
helplessness. They may refuse to eat as a signal that
they no longer care about nourishment, and they withdraw
their personal involvement from the meal. Others may
rebel or fight the feeder, or engage in the ultimate
battle against adults. They refuse to eat, and challenge
the feeder to the mealtime battle. When adults take time
to observe, listen, and interpret what the child is
saying, mealtimes become easier and more pleasant for
everyone. Review the 10 mealtime messages described in
the paper, Communication at
Mealtimes. Explore the following ideas, to create
a greater understanding of the child's communication, and
establish a dialogue at each meal.
- The first step is to identify how the child is
already communicating the message.
probably figured out many of these messages if
you know the child and have fed him often. We
always take in information that is helpful to us.
We usually know when the child likes or doesn't
like a particular food, or when the child is
ready to stop eating.
Begin with one of the messages you know. For
example, when you are pretty sure the child likes
the food, notice what he is doing to let you know
he likes it.
Observe all parts of the child's body.
Messages can be carried by
- the way the body, arms, and legs move.
- the way the mouth moves or there is an
expression of the face.
- the way the eyes move, look, or carry
- the way the voice sounds.
If you learn through writing things down, make
some notes after you have finished feeding. These
will remind you of what you have observed. When
you observe another day, you can see whether the
same sounds and movements occur.
Observe for one or two messages each time you
feed. You are learning another language. Take
each step slowly and let children teach you how
they communicate. Here are some messages children
frequently give a feeder.
- I want to eat and I can see or smell the
food and know it is there.
- I want to eat, but it isn't a regular
mealtime, or I can't tell if my food is
there and ready.
- I like this food.
When you think you understand what the child
is telling you, give her verbal feedback.
"You are looking at the glass. That tells me
you want a drink". "Your quiet mouth is
telling me you are ready for another bite".
"Your face says you really like the
potatoes". When you give this kind of
feedback often, you may see the same movements
used more frequently for the message. It is
easier for children to learn this way than
through telling them what to do. For example,
"I see you looking at the spoon. Now I know
you are ready", will be easier for the child
to repeat than "Look at the spoon when you
- Discover ways in which you can increase the
child's opportunity to make choices and
communicate with you in more advanced ways.
Notice whether you offer choices during the meal.
Notice whether the child can see the food dishes
and look toward the food desired. Do you create
other possibilities for the child to communicate?
- Changes in the physical or sensory environment of
the mealtime may make communication easier for
you and for the child. Here are some questions
for you to explore:
- Does the child have to look up or put the
head back to see your face or the spoon?
- Is the child sitting or lying so that the
head and body are pulled to one side, are
unsteady, or lack control?
- Does the child cry or use repetitive
self-stimulating behaviors as a way of
saying "This is too noisy and
confusing", or "This is
- Does the child complain about very warm
or very cold food?
- Explore ways of changing the child's physical,
sensory, or communicative abilities with other
persons who feed or work with the child. Another
way of looking at the problems you have
identified can be very helpful.
- Become aware of feelings of stress and a sense of
being rushed or hurried through the meal.
Mealtimes may become something we move through
quickly. A child may need to catch the school
bus. One feeder may be responsible for several
children. We perceive a limited amount of time
and we reduce our communication with children
because we are afraid that if we listen, it will
take too much time. When we listen and offer
choices, we often make it easier for the child to
eat. It might take less time, if we check it out.
Evans Morris, Ph.D.
1124 Roberts Mountain Road
Faber, Virginia 22938
This paper is a working
draft and multiple copies may not be reproduced
without prior written permission of the author
© Suzanne Evans Morris, 1997 All Rights Reserved