This is a guest post from Dina.
Communication. It is a HUGE part of who we are as people. So, when you’re a parent and you live with one or more little people who are learning to communicate, it can be an amazing and fun process to watch develop over time. But what about communication struggles?
Before I became a mom I worked for six years as a speech-language pathologist in an elementary school. The scope of speech-language pathology is broad and covers areas that I did not treat, such as swallowing and voice disorders. There were also areas that I had limited experience with, for instance, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Down’s syndrome. I worked primarily with children from three years old through fifth grade with various communication difficulties, mainly:
• Articulation and phonological speech disorders– saying sounds incorrectly, patterned errors that can make speech difficult to understand
• Fluency disorders – stuttering
• Language disorders – receptive (understanding what they hear) and expressive (being able to say what they want) language impairment, cognitive delays, pragmatic language delays
So, what do you do when you suspect your child might have a speech, language, or communication delay?
First things first: dump any guilt you may be feeling about what you have done or have not done (because parents always have guilt, right?) and get proactive about what you as a parent CAN DO to help your child.
Here are some things you can start doing with your child. Sometimes there is a great bit of understanding and potential inside these little people and they just need the right tool in their tool box to help them get their message out.
• Use grown up talk, not baby talk – When your child says “wah wah”, it is so easy to say it right back, “here’s your wah wah”. Just remember that when they say words in that “oh, so cute” baby talk way, that is really their best attempt at talking like you do. Recognize their attempts by responding with the correct words. “Yes, here’s your water”. I know, you love that cute way they say it, write it down in your mommy journal (I do often), but emphasize how to say things correctly.
• Don’t just give them what they want when they say “uh”. When your child points and says “uh” or stands by the refrigerator and says “uh” meaning “I would like my juice please”. Teach them to ask for what they want. Start by using basic words. If you know he wants juice, say “juice”. Once he can make simple requests, add more words “juice, please”. Some basic words to get you started: bye bye, family member/pet names, basic foods/drinks, basic actions, basic toys (ball, car, baby). Get down on his level, look in his eyes, praise him and respond to his attempts.
• Use sabotage. If your child has favorite toys, books, snacks that you know she is going to request, put them within eyesight, but out of reach. You have just provided serious motivation for your child to communicate. So when she sees her baby doll sitting there and can’t reach it and starts whining and grunting, walk over and ask what she wants. When she points, then you can encourage her to say “baby”. Doing this shows her you hear her, you see her attempts, and you are listening and responding when she tries to communicate with you.
• Get rid of speech stoppers (a.k.a. pacifiers, bottles, sippy cups) – remember, your child cannot talk with objects stuck in his mouth 24/7. We had a “leave the binky in the bed rule” at our house from a very early age. I once had a parent bring a 3 year old child to our speech therapy session with a pacifier in his mouth. He was trying to talk around a huge piece of plastic that was 1) impeding his speech and 2) totally messing up his teeth and tongue placement. My hands were pretty much tied until his parents were willing to take the pacifier away.
• Use sign language. I can’t say enough about this powerful tool!!! I started using sign language with my kids early on, when they were about six months old. They could sign many words before they could talk (milk, pears, carrots, beans, color words, please, more). Sign language is terrific way to empower your child with language and encourage them to communicate while you are waiting for their speech capabilities to kick in. This one goes along with my previous sabotage advice; when my children wanted something and did not know or have the ability to say the word, I would show them the sign. Doing this gave them an extra avenue of communication. And many times once they started signing the words they also started saying them. I love this tool too because you can do it hand-over-hand if need be. Signing encourages them to communicate and can show them the benefits of communicating. (We love the Signing Time videos and they are now on Netflix!)
• Read to them every day – point to and name pictures, ask questions so your child can point, name, and answer. Be enthusiastic and read their favorite books over and over and over AND OVER. Reading helps kids on so many levels, it encourages literacy and language development, and it gives them the chance to hear you say sounds and words correctly… I could go on, there are so many benefits. (Read the ABC Jesus Loves Me list of Best Books by Age)
• Talk, talk, talk to your child and expand on what he says. If he says “ball”, expand on it by saying “big ball”, “red ball”, or “big, red ball”. Talk about what you are doing with your child and describe your actions. During bath time you can name body parts, i.e. “I’m washing your arm, I’m scrubbing your feet, I’m wiping your face”. These are just a few great ways to help your child’s vocabulary grow, talk, expand, and describe.
• Make sure your child is hearing well. When children have chronic ear infections, the long term effect of built up fluid can be decreased hearing. A few of the students I worked with had a significant improvement in their overall responsiveness and speech sound production after having pressure equalization tubes placed. A quick check up to rule out this potential communication obstacle is a good idea.
• Go with your gut. If you are engaging your child, stimulating her language, encouraging correct speech and your child is just not where you feel she should be, ask your pediatrician about it and explain your concerns. Sometimes there is room for growth, and we can give the benefit of the doubt for a time. If you feel your child needs more help, ask for a referral for speech-language assessment.
So what can you as a parent do? Fill your child’s tool box by talking, expanding, describing, reading, signing, sabotaging, listening, responding, and getting rid of speech stoppers. Acknowledge their frustrations when communication breakdowns occur and keep encouraging and praising them when they make attempts. Go with your gut and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel like it’s time.
Dina Peters, M.S. CCC-SLP
Mommy of 3 sweet little people