No one is ever prepared to be a parent to a child who needs a little bit more help than other children. But when it happens, that’s what we parents do best- help our children however we can.
I knew by the time that my daughter K was a year and a half old, that she was missing some words from her vocabulary. Most words actually. I had graduated from college with a Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, so milestones were something that we studied and talked about frequently. After all, one of my responsibilities as a preschool teacher was to identify then refer children & families for services that they may need. A milestone for a 2 year old is to say is to say simple 2 word sentences, such as “more milk” “up please”. As we approached her second birthday, I knew she wasn’t there. She had “mama” and “dada”. I wasn’t entirely worried because I knew she understood language that was spoken to her which was a great sign. I did however, still prepare myself to be on the other end of the “referral conversation” when I took her for her 2 year old check-up.
At that visit, the doctor tried to get her to copy her words. “Say please” “Say ball” “What is this?”….. “It’s milk. Can you say milk?” K just smiled at her. While I expected it, The worry built up inside as I watched her try to get her to talk. While I know there are far more severe delays for children to have, how could a child get through life not being able to communicate? She is asthmatic. How would she tell her future teachers that she needs her inhaler? How would she make friends? How would she let me know if she needs to go to the potty? If something bad happens to her, how will we even know? I left the office that day with a lot of anxiety and the phone number in my hand to get her into speech therapy.
Well that was 2 years ago and now I can’t get her to stop talking.
I’m joking. Kind of. She really does talk SO much, however she is still very hard to understand. While she has made immense progress, she still often needs to translate for her. My heart has broken for her as I watched her approach kids at the park and they dismiss her and walk away because they can’t understand her. Talk about a stab in the heart. I felt so bad for her, I wanted to cry and just hold her. She is my baby after all. But before I knew it, she had found other kids who wanted to play with her. It was instances like this that made me rethink feeling sorry for her. Feeling sorry for her isn’t going to help her talk any better. What will help is me talking to her. Some other things that I’ve learned through these 2 years will help her much more than any apology.
NO BABY TALK
Obviously, if she isn’t pronouncing words right we don’t want to continue that pattern. And just because she doesn’t talk like a typical 4 year old, doesn’t mean she talks like a 3 month old. Just talk. Have a real conversation with her, with real words.
Get on her level.
This is important for many reasons. Getting down on her level is just respectful. It is easier to have a conversation with anyone at any age if you aren’t looking up or looking down at them. Would you want to have a conversation looking up at someone who is 3 feet taller than you? Probably not. Also, it is really important for her to see your lips and tongue move. This is a strategy that helps her learn what to do with her own facial muscles in order to produce the correct sounds.
Ask her to repeat what she said, but do this sparingly.
Don’t be afraid to try and find out what she is saying. By this point, she is used to repeating herself. However, just because she is used to it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t get frustrated. She can only repeat herself so many times before she gets discouraged and changes her mind completely. I want her to know that anything she has to say is important. I don’t ever want her to feel like what she has to say, doesn’t need to be heard. Especially not in today’s society that she is growing up in.
Ask her to show you.
This is helpful if you can’t figure out her message. “Show me” is something she’s been able to do- since she could crawl or walk. If I didn’t know what she wanted I could say “show me” and she would go point to the fridge. As she got a little more mobile she could open to the fridge and point to milk or an apple. Now that she’s older, I may say “show me” and she might have to show me multiple things in order for me to piece her plan together. For example, we did this recently and she ended up bringing me a bowl, and spoon from her kitchen area. Once I had those clues, along with the words that I could understand, I was able to figure out that she was asking for something that she could pretend to be cake because she wanted to make a cake for her baby’s birthday. She didn’t want to use any of her pretend plastic food because, well, that’s not cake.
Give her the words.
If and when you do figure it out, say those words for her. Say them slowly so she can see your lips move. Now please don’t do it so slow that it becomes condescending. That’s just annoying. Make the statement “You want to make a cake” so that she can hear the words associated with the actions she is describing.
Don’t correct her. Just say it correctly.
Please don’t tell her she is wrong, or that “that’s’ not how you say that” because guess what? To her it is. Don’t make her feel bad for something that is beyond her control. Just model it correctly for her. For example if she asks to watch “Dery” she is asking for Finding Nemo. My response to her is “You want to watch Dory?”. She has many, many words, now it’s just about helping her pronounce them in a way people can understand.
She loves to sing. It all began with Let it Go. Before I even knew what happened she was pronouncing parts of the song and singling along. There is something about the way our words slide together when singing that must help her tongue and mouth move the correct way. We took advantage of this and used singing to our advantage. She could probably school you on some Disney songs.
Play with her!
By just playing with her, you can probably learn more in 5 minutes than trying to just sit down and talk. She loves to pretend play. Whether it is cooking, taking care of babies, going shopping, or playing barbies she becomes fully immersed in her pretend play. Being there with her and linking actions to her words helps me understand her better. I also have another opportunity to give her the right words as I am participating in her play.
Read with her.
She loves books. Often she asks me to read a story more than once. Usually if she asks for a third time I will ask her to read it to me. This is another opportunity for me to hear her words and model pronunciation for her.
Last but not least…
Whatever you do, do NOT just agree!
Trust me. You may regret it. If you can’t understand her you definitely do not want to just say “Yes” or “Okay.” She wasn’t born yesterday. This is another way she can get discouraged because she knows that “Okay” isn’t the answer to her question or that it doesn’t make sense in response to her statement. This tells her that you didn’t understand her and you’re not even trying to. On another note, she could very well be asking something that you don’t want her to do. So because you couldn’t understand her, you just gave her permission to go paint all over the walls of her bedroom….She’s 4 and paint is really fun.
SO over the last 2 years of her being in both a home based and school based speech program, I have learned a lot and have watched her learn so much more. It took longer than “normal” to be able to confirm if she knew her colors or shapes simply because we couldn’t understand what she was saying. Now we know that she knows her colors, shapes, she can count, identify some letters, and she can write the letter K and A. She may not be writing her whole name like many other 4 year olds, but I was much more concerned with making sure that she could communicate with other children and adults so she will be able to be successful in a social setting.
& so far it seems that we’ve succeeded. At her current day care she has a best friend, B (who is also 4). Her and B have been best friends since K started there. Sweet little B always helps K when she is trying to talk to other children and they don’t understand her. B also sits on the floor with her and helps her pronounce words when she is having a hard time. She’ll say the word slowly then say “now it’s your turn K!” I won’t be surprised if B becomes a speech therapist when she is an adult. The fact that K has been able to build this sweet friendship with little B gives me faith that she’ll be able to continue to do so as she begins school in the fall.
Hopefully this is helpful to some who may know a child with a speech delay. When K was in the home based speech program, my mom would be there while I was at work. After one of the first visits I remember her telling me “She [her speech teacher] doesn’t do anything that you can’t do.” And after everything I’ve learned, it really is that simple. I appreciate her speech teachers wholeheartedly, but her learning doesn’t just stop at speech.
If you ever have a child, or spend time with a child who you can’t understand, please remember these things. Words mean so much more than pity.