Communication is part of our unique definition as humans. It provides expression for our ideas, a platform for us to comment, tell, request, suggest, and share throughout our daily lives. For this reason, a child’s expression of his/her first word is reason for huge celebration! A little person is proving to the world that he/she has begun to “crack the code” of our complex world of language.
And indeed, a complex world it is. Think not only of our English language’s over 200,000 vocabulary words, but on top of that, the complicated grammar rules, the social rules that dictate when, where, and how things can be spoken, not to mention the ability to speak each sound of every word and sentence in a smooth, accurate sequence. It’s an amazing feat for any child to actually “decode” our language system, and be able to produce even a single word by their first birthday – and all that without any formal instruction! How is this possible? In fact, how is it possible that we’ve never given this miracle a second thought? Rarely do we consider language development at all, until we notice a child for whom understanding language and using it effectively is a difficult challenge.
If you do suspect your child is experiencing language delay, your first priority should be to schedule a comprehensive evaluation by a speech-language pathologist. Following the evaluation, the therapist will provide you with a detailed report that compares your child’s skills to the general expectations for his/her age, as well as a recommendation for or against therapy.
Regardless of therapy recommendations, however, there are so many things you as a parent can do to help foster language development in your child each and every day. In fact, parents are a child’s first and best teachers! This means better than the speech therapist, better than the early childhood educator, and better than the psychologist. Does this mean every parent of a child with learning challenges must go back to school for a degree in teaching, speech therapy, psychology, etc? Of course not! But you do owe it to your child to learn from the professionals who are educated in these fields. View them as your coaches, and imitate the models they provide you with. Bring home the strategies you see them using, and transform yourself into your child’s 24-hour, personal therapist. Seem like a daunting task? Perhaps… but remember, therapy is less about formal training, and more about seizing the opportunities that already exist in each moment of your child’s day.
Let’s consider some examples of how you can make a habit of stimulating language during your child’s daily routines:
• Floor time – Kids are curious creatures. They love checking out their surroundings, touching everything reachable, exploring new objects. Take advantage of this curiosity and cover your child’s explorations with words. If you see him looking at a toy, repeatedly name the toy in simple descriptive sentences. If he reaches for a book, say, “Oh book! Did you want the book? Here’s the book! Let’s read the book.” If his attention shifts, shift with him and describe the next object he found. Allow him to take the lead, because if he’s interested, he’s attending. And if he’s attending, he’s learning!
• Bath time – Routines can get old and boring for us as adults, but for kids, they bring structure and order. Kids enjoy familiarity and love being able to predict what’s next. And incidentally, these skills are all important for language development! Bath time is a great example. Pick a sequence of 3 simple steps you follow (“Play, Wash, Dry” or “Wash Hair, Hands, Toes”), and verbalize each step every time your child takes a bath. Set up visible objects to help illustrate the steps (play-toy, wash-washcloth, dry-towel), and point to/name them in order as you proceed through the routine. Ask her simple questions (“What’s first? What’s next?”). Encourage her to role play and give baths to the rubber ducky or doll, cementing the routine and the language that surrounds it. Over time, as your child becomes familiar with the steps, add new ones (water on, toys in, [child] in, play time, wash time, [child] out, dry time).
• Car rides – Think of all the mundane things that pass by our car windows on the way to the store, the doctor, school. Boring? Maybe. Learning opportunities? Surely! Describe the things you see, pointing them out to your child, using simple describing words (big truck, little car, green light, wet dog, cold snow). Act excited, and your excitement will be contagious! No longer a boring commute, but a mini language lesson. Add complexity as he learns the new words, talking more extensively about the things you see, and asking him simple questions (What is on top of the tall fence? Where is the green ball? Why is the dog wet?).
• Meal time – From day one, food is an important part of all of our lives. For most kids, food is very motivating, especially if it’s something they like. As parents, you can tell what your child likes and dislikes, and you can predict what he wants when she’s hungry. But you can encourage more language by playing dumb! Pretend you don’t understand her grunt and point, and you need to hear her words. Require her to first make a choice between 2-3 items (first by pointing, later by imitating a word you provide, then by independently using the word). As her skills develop over time, continually make the task more challenging by requiring more words (“Cookie”, “Cookie please”, “I want cookie”, “I want the cookie, please”). If she is hungry, and knows she will be rewarded for using her words, she will talk!
Naturally, these are just a few of millions of opportunities for you to practice your home “therapy” skills! Nothing comes without practice, so there’s no time like the present to make a beginning. Eventually, engaging your child in language practice will become habitual, something you do without even noticing. In fact, it’s likely you do many of these things already, simply by interacting with your child on a daily basis. If you have questions or are looking for some feedback, simply ask your child’s speech therapist to observe you and your child interact, or show him/her a video of a home interaction. The speech therapist can also provide you with more targeted tips on how to address your child’s specific language needs and goals.