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Can Speech and Language Therapy Help Your Child Live a Fuller Life?

speech language therapy help your child

Takeaway: Children make friends and engage with the world by speaking. So, it’s worrying when they struggle to say words (i.e. have speech issues) or struggle to put words together to communicate (i.e. have language issues). Luckily, with the right team and the right therapy, your child can live a fuller, happier life.

Parents treasure the moment their child first speaks. But it’s about so much more than just the words.

Speaking is an important developmental milestone, which is often why parents are proud of their child’s first words. But there’s so much hidden significance to that moment, because speech is how your child engages with the world. It’s how she tells people what she feels and wants, and it’s how she shares ideas. It’s how they share their feelings, wants, needs, and ideas with her, too.

That’s why we worry when our child struggles to speak and communicate.

We’re afraid she’ll fall behind in school. That she’ll be teased. That she won’t be able to make friends. Because friends — and ‘play’ — are how she’ll learn to interact with others, get along, negotiate, and pick up the hundreds of other little things that will make her a well-adjusted child.

Most of these struggles come down to two things.

These are:

  1. Speech issues: Trouble saying words. It could be that she struggles to form the right speech sounds or she pronounces words wrong. It could be that she has problems keeping the words flowing — for example, if she stutters. Or it could be that her voice sounds different (e.g., its pitch, volume, or quality).
  2. Language issues: Trouble putting words together and communicating. She could have problems understanding what people are saying — i.e. ‘receptive’ language difficulties. She might have problems expressing her thoughts — i.e. ‘expressive’ language difficulties. Or she might have other challenges, like problems concentrating or remembering.

Here’s where a speech and language therapist can help.

Although we separate your child’s challenges into ‘speech’ or ‘language’ issues, these often overlap. And they overlap with other things too. Things like learning differences, attention difficulties, and the autism spectrum. A trained speech and language therapist will identify your child’s unique needs, create a custom care plan, and offer a range of related services. She’ll work along with you, your child, her teacher, and if needed, an occupational therapist or doctor.

So, what’s it like to go through this sort of therapy?

Most parents and children find it to be challenging and empowering in turn. Here are some of the questions parents usually have.

1. What are we trying to do?

We’re trying to help your child express herself better, understand other people when they’re expressing themselves, and adapt to her school work. This could mean working on speech sounds, growing her vocabulary, or improving her grammar. It could also mean adding to her social skills. We’re trying to improve her day-to-day quality of life in very practical ways. The concept of ‘pragmatic language skills’ is useful here. This refers to the social language skills your child uses when interacting with her friends and classmates. Skills like making eye contact, taking turns in a conversation, using the right communication style for a given situation, using humour, etc. In this sense, speech and language therapy is part of a holistic approach to helping your child.

2. How do we do it?

First, there’s an assessment to learn more about the kind of help your child needs. This involves talking to and observing your child, conducting standardised tests, and getting more information from you and your child’s teachers — either through interviews or questionnaires.

Next comes the focussed teaching. The therapist will then use a range of teaching techniques based on your child’s needs. For example:

  • Modelling something and getting your child to imitate it. Perhaps she’ll make a speech sound and get your child to copy how she moved her lips, mouth, and tongue. Practise makes perfect with these sorts of things, so repetition is key.
  • Using games and play sessions. For example, playing ‘Simon Says’ to encourage her to focus on hearing. Computer apps and games are now often used too, because they’re already a part of your child’s home life.
  • Rewarding small successes to encourage and motivate her. For example, giving praise, stickers, tokens, etc.
  • Teaching her to teach herself (i.e., metacognition). For example, the therapist could say something and ask her to respond based on what she already knows. In choosing her response, she’ll learn much more than if the information was just presented to her.

3. Where will the therapy take place?

It could happen at home, the clinic, the nursery/kindergarten, or at school. Targeted therapy at a clinic (i.e. ‘direct’ therapy) is important. But so is engaging with your child more subtly at school or at home (i.e. ‘indirect’ therapy). That’s because the social context for therapy is as important as the therapy itself.

4. How long will the therapy last?

It depends on the kind of help your child needs. For example, with vocabulary, it’s pretty straightforward — more classes mean more words learned. But with something like grammar, it’s not about time spent, but focus given. So, therapy could be a relatively short process (e.g. once a week for six weeks and then repeated if necessary), or a longer one as part of a school curriculum.

What can parents do to help?

Finding a skilled therapist is important, but you’ll play a big role in the therapeutic process too. Your child respects and models you, so you’re the perfect source of ‘indirect’ learning and encouragement for her. Here are some things you could do:

1. Offer your undivided attention

Try to clear up time when she’ll be your sole focus. Remember that she can pick up cues easily, so will notice when you’re distracted. And that’s the quickest way to make her stop trying.

2. Help your child practise her speaking and language skills

The trick is to use everyday situations to reinforce key skills. So, point out objects around the house and ask her what they are. Or describe what you’re doing as you clean the room. You could also encourage her to imitate sounds and gestures, tell her stories, look at picture books together, and sing songs. Use simple language but try not to use ‘baby talk.’

3. Stay positive and supportive

The idea is to teach but not criticise. And this often involves being patient. So, if your child is struggling to put together words or thoughts, try not to interrupt her. By letting her try and work through it on her own, you’re building her self-confidence. Even when correcting her, try and do it subtly. For example, if she mispronounces the word ‘spaghetti,’ use it repeatedly by saying, ‘Do you like spaghetti? I like spaghetti! Spaghetti is nice, isn’t it?’ This would be much better than a blunt, ‘No, no, that’s not how you say it.’

4. Focus on your child’s strengths

Children have all kinds of learning styles and learning differences that you can celebrate. So spend time on her strengths. For example, if you know that your child is a visual learner, try and use pictures and visual aids more often.

The right kind of speech and language therapy can help your child live a fuller, happier life.

Therapy can be a slow and frustrating process. And it certainly isn’t a magic wand you can wave to make challenges disappear. But start it early enough and you’ll be encouraged to see your child grow. Because, whatever her struggles, there’s always a way to make her life a little fuller and a little happier.

Would you like to talk to someone about your child’s speech and language needs?

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges.

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