It seems that every year there are more children in speech therapy before kindergarten. Parents are hypersensitive to how their children speak and how “well” they compare in speech problems to other children they know of the same age.
As teachers, we must remind them that, as with other areas of development, each child progresses in speech and language at different rates. It is very common to say “Otay” instead of “Okay” or “tefelone” instead of “phone” in the preschool years. Many three-year-olds will say “He went to the beach.” It can progress to “He went to the beach” or “He went to the beach”. The correct use of pronouns (personal and proper), as well as verb tenses, are part of the growth and development of speech and language in preschool age. It is when a pattern of use that is outside the developmental norm can be seen in their speech or language that teachers should raise a red flag.
As teachers, parents ask us to answer some questions that are not easy to answer. When asked if we think your child has a speech or language problem, we must be very careful how we respond. If we answer yes, we have just labeled that child and the parent assumes that we are correct because, after all, we are the experts when it comes to children.
Now don’t get lost with my next statement, it is blunt but true: we must remember that we are NOT the speech and language experts (unless of course you have your degree in speech and language pathology!). We should NOT tell parents that we think their child has a speech or language problem. We once told a parent that their child has been “diagnosed by an expert.”
A speech problem refers to a problem with the production of sounds. A language disorder refers to having difficulty understanding or putting words together to communicate thoughts or ideas.
The child’s problem, many times, is not simply a speech or language disorder. A child can have one of many other things that are affecting him and the problems he sees in his speech and language can be a symptom of this other problem.
A child with speech problems may have a hearing or inner ear problem that has not yet been detected. The child with language problems may have sensory / sensory integration problems or may simply speak a different language at home and his “problem” is learning a new language.
As preschool teachers, we have the training and experience that allows us to know when children do not seem to develop within typical stages. Our role is to know what the developmental norms are for the acquisition of speech and language (as well as other areas of growth and development) for the ages of the children we care for.
The best and most appropriate steps we can take to ensure that we handle developmental concerns in a professional manner and within the confines of our training are:
1. Stay up-to-date on growth and development training.
Contact a local speech / language pathologist to schedule basic training on what to look for in developmental norms and red flags.
2. Observe and record … OFTEN!
Part of our day should be spent recording children’s observations in our programs. If you or a parent is concerned about a child’s speech or language development, record the conversations. Write EXACTLY what the child says. Do this for a period of time and then review your results. Are there common patterns (for example, sound replacements, the child replaces the “ch” sound with a “t” sound)?
After you’ve reviewed your observations, look at the developmental expectations for that age. Is what you are observing common for this age group?
3. When in doubt, ask an expert in the field. We are experts in typical child growth and development. Once you have determined that a speech or language pattern with a child appears to be out of the norm, ask an expert for their opinion on whether or not you should refer this family for a professional evaluation.
4. When speaking with parents about concerns related to their child’s development, do not present yourself as an expert in that field (again, we are not speech therapists, occupational therapists, etc.).
Let parents know that based on your training and experience, you think it would be a good idea for them to get an opinion from their child’s doctor or specialist regarding ________ (fill in the blank: speech, motor control, etc. ).
Remind parents that all children grow and develop at different rates and that there may be a six to eight month window for each age group. Please rate your concern by letting them know what you, as a trained child growth and development professional, would expect to see children of this age do in your area of interest. Offer them a written summary of your observations. (This is not a copy of your daily observation reports, but a written summary “replaces the” ch “sound with the” t “sound consistently).