Home Education & Learning What is Gestalt language processing, and how can parents support their children?

What is Gestalt language processing, and how can parents support their children?

by Tania Griffin

A growing area of interest in the speech therapy profession is Gestalt language processing. Gestalt language processors are children who learn language in a way that is different from analytical language learners. Rather than learning to make sounds, then words and then sentences like analytical language learners, these children learn whole phrases first.

“For those with a psychology background, the word Gestalt is familiar, but it essentially means learning from the whole to the part. Rather than learning the word done, a Gestalt language processor may say, well done, excellent job every time they complete a task, regardless of whether the job was completed fully or not,” explains Robyn Barlow, speech therapist at The Bridge Assisted Learning School, part of the ADvTECH Group.

“It is a type of language development that usually presents with echolalia. Echolalia is a term for sentences or phrases that are repeated, which can either be delayed or immediate. These are the children who repeat your questions back to you or repeat a line from a TV show in a sing-song manner,” she says.

“It can be frustrating when your questions are constantly said back to you by a small person. And for many, it may appear the child is unaware of what is being asked, but research has shown that is not true. As communicative partners of these children, it is important to encourage communication in any form.”

Some tips for parents and teachers communicating with Gestalt language processors include:

  • Acknowledge the communication. This can be through a smile or a nod, but the attempt to communicate must be acknowledged.
  • Model language. They have made associations to these phrases that may be tricky to decipher. For example, the child may say, “That’s a big truck” every time they see a truck. As a caregiver, modelling various sentence structures, intonation patterns and modifying the sentence is a good way to stimulate language. For example, “Is that a big truck?” or “Yes, a big RED truck.”
  • But sometimes, the phrase can be attached to an emotion. Determining if an emotional response is attached to a phrase can help you and the child identify big feelings and better ways to manage them.

“While we do not know what causes children to be analytic or Gestalt processors, we do know that Gestalt language processing using echolalia is a valid form of communication. Many children who are Gestalt language processors are neurodivergent and it is important to learn how you can support them through neurodiverse affirming approaches,” Barlow says.

Renie Sutherland, principal at The Bridge Assisted Learning School Morningside Campus (sister school of The Bridge Lonehill), says that as is the case with all neurodiverse children, parents should seek additional assistance if they feel unsure or concerned about their child’s development.

“Sometimes neurodiverse students can’t thrive in mainstream schools, but they may also not be suited for special needs schools. Nevertheless, children with average to above average ability, whose learning is impacted by challenges such as ADHD, dyslexia, mild autism and anxiety – or children who have been through illness or trauma that has affected their scholastic progress, as well as children who display signs of Gestalt language processing – may find the necessary support from therapy or schools that cater to neurodiverse children.

“Gestalt language processing is not a disorder, but a different way of learning using language which can be nurtured and enhanced with the right guidance and strategies. If parents notice any signs that suggest Gestalt language processing, they may want to consult a speech-language pathologist or therapist who can assess the child’s language skills and provide appropriate intervention, support and guidance.”

Gestalt language processing is not a problem, but a potential, Sutherland says. “Parents should therefore not be concerned or alarmed if they notice what could be Gestalt language processing in their children, as it is a natural and valid way of learning and using language. However, parents can play a vital role in supporting their child’s language and holistic development by being responsive, supportive and collaborative with the child, their educators and other support structures.”

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