How to Help Children with Speech and Language Difficulties

Having spent a lot of time teaching early years, it’s quite clear that more and more children are entering childcare settings with speech and language difficulties. Problems with speech and language are the most common developmental difficulty that children encounter. Studies indicate that as many as 1 in 10 children in the UK have speech and language difficulties, and these are particularly prevalent in the early years. Last year Save the Children published their ‘The Lost Boys’ report which included the worrying statistic that 124,500 children fell behind in early language and communication last year.

When you think about it, language is one of the most important skills we will ever learn. Everything we do either at home, at work, or at play, requires us to communicate with our families, friends and colleagues. Without language it is incredibly difficult to share our thoughts and feelings with others, to make lasting friendships or relationships, to give and receive information and to learn about the world in which we live. If a child has problems with speech and language it can have consequences on their cognitive development, their behaviour, social skills and self esteem.

It is really important to get help as early as possible, if you suspect a child has difficulties in this area. Concerned parents can access help by;

  • Sharing concerns with a health visitor
  • Sharing concerns with playgroup or nursery staff
  • Talking to your GP and asking to be referred to a speech and language specialist
  • It is possible for parents to refer themselves to speech and language therapists

The ability to use and understand language is essential for all children. Children learn language in such a short space of time and this is why the pre-school years are so crucial – with parents and early years workers playing a vital role in encouraging communication development. I sat in on a wonderful seminar from Catherine Jackson at this year’s Childcare Expo. Catherine is a speech and language therapist, with over twenty years experience. She shared some of the methods she recommends to help children who are having difficulties with communication skills.

Ten tips for  helping children with SLD in the early years:

  1. Get the child’s attention. Use their name first and then the sentence i.e. “Jayden, can you put your coat on.” If that doesn’t work, then physically get the child’s attention.
  2. Imitate or repeat what the child has said i.e. “Flower”(this gives the child a sense of well-being, they have been listened to and understood).
  3. Make your own language simple and repetitive, slow your speech down. Sometimes we just talk too fast!
  4. Extend the child’s language by one word – if the child says “flower” answer with “yellow flower”
  5. Give the child time to respond (10 seconds is a good amount of time). While you wait, look at the child’s eye direction generally – if they look up to the left, they are accessing information from memory. If they look side left they are trying to hear. If they look to the right they are making it up. If they look down they are feeling anxious. If you are just getting a blank stare – they simply don’t know. (This information comes in handy when dealing with some adults too!)
  6. Model language – don’t correct them if they get it wrong! Just repeat with the correct word “It is a huge yellow flower.”
  7. Use all 5 senses to help communication. For instance smelling sand might get a response of “Like the seaside”; touching ice could get the response of “cold”- by using senses, our cognitive paths are being formed.
  8. Act! Use gestures, step up your tone of voice and really overdo facial expressions.
  9. Be careful with questions – it really is better not to question, just to comment. Then there is no pressure on the child. You can open up conversation by getting things wrong “I’m sitting on a green cushion” – they will be bursting to tell you “It’s red!” Or comment “You’re sitting on a purple cushion. Purple is my favourite colour.” This can open up conversation, they might reply “I like blue” We are lucky enough to live in a country that is very diverse, with many of our children not having English as their first language. They may not have a huge vocabulary in English, so gesture and comment are very important, “Oh look what you’re building. It’s tall.” Gestures can convey the meaning of a word.
  10. Have FUN! Being silly and funny is engaging, using rhyme, repetition, guessing games, stories … It all helps.

For more help on this issue parents and practitioners can download resources and get information from The Communication Trust website 

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