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Teaching language skills to your child at the dinner table

While many skills are taught in a highly structured learning environment (for example, a worktable), it is advantageous to also teach skills during daily routines.  Ultimately, the more learning opportunities that the parent or instructor can identify and use to teach the learner new skills, the better!

Which Skills?

Prior to teaching your child new skills at the dinner table, it is helpful to determine what skills your child has and which skills he still needs to develop.  We recommend both the ABLLS-R and the AFLS as two assessments that can be used to measure your child’s existing skills and help you with selecting developmentally appropriate teaching objectives.  Skills that could be taught during dinnertime, may include language-based skills; such as requesting for, labeling, and receptively identifying common objects that pertain to mealtime activities. For example, receptively identifying one’s fork, spoon, and plate, requesting a particular food item to be served, labeling the class of food served such as “vegetables,” “meats,” etc., all qualify.  Other skills may be more routine-based such as setting the table, taking dishes to and from the table, cleaning up one’s eating area, pouring milk or juice into one’s cup, etc. Here are some pointers on how to select and teach skills during dinnertime:

Pick a couple of skills to target that will be immediately beneficial for the learner.  Some examples may include requesting for objects (a drink, a plate, etc.) or labeling objects (a cup, a fork, etc.). Clearing dishes from the table might also be a useful skill to teach.  Note that all of these skills can be used while eating in different locations (such as out in the community, at school, etc.)

Don’t bombard the learner and try to teach him too many skills at the dinner table.  Consider picking one skill that the learner can perform prior to eating (setting or bringing things to the table), a couple of skills while seated at the dinner table, and one or two skills for after the meal (clearing his dishes or wiping his seating area).  It’s important to keep dinnertime as natural as possible while also teaching skills to your child.


Use prompts as needed to teach new skills and fade them as the learner shows signs of using them on his own.  For example, once the child is seated, bring the child’s preferred beverage to the table and ask the child for the cup.  If the child is unable to select the cup on his own, the parent could point to the cup and help the child identify and pick up the cup.  

Make desired objects and events available during and after dinnertime to get the learner motivated to carryout learning tasks at the dinner table. He is more likely to comply with requests when there is something positive to gain in the end. If the learner wants to watch TV after the meal, he is more likely to comply when asked to clear his dishes and wipe down his eating area.

If you are teaching the learner to request for a missing item, it is helpful to keep these specific items hidden. For example, if the child likes to eat soup, but does not have a spoon, he will be motivated to ask for one if it is not available.

Additional Resources

Using dinnertime and other common routines to teach new skills can be highly beneficial to the child.  Doing so will help to complement and maintain the skills taught during more structured teaching sessions (at the work table).  For more information on how to teach in the natural environment, assess skills and select developmentally appropriate teaching objectives, we recommend the book, Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism.

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