Three Ways to Help Your Child with Speech & Language Development

#1 Create Opportunities to Learn and Use Communication Skills.

Tip: Try to limit how often you prevent moments of frustration.

As difficult as it is for us to watch a child navigate a moment of frustration, we must try to remember that communication is often learned out of necessity. If the adults in your child’s life are always anticipating their wants and needs, your child will miss many opportunities to learn how to communicate about the obstacles in their life. For example, if a caregiver always opens a favorite snack before handing it to their child, the child misses the opportunity to learn to ask for “help” when they realize that they are unable to open it themselves. Of course, there are times where adults must predict a child’s needs for safety reasons, but adults can practice mindful observation and intentionally wait for communication temptations to arise during play or during daily routines.

Tip: Use “sabotage” as a strategy to elicit speech and language.

As discussed above, children learn to communicate when a circumstance warrants the need for communication. Adults can also design situations for children to use expressive language by “sabotaging” the environment. By sabotaging, we can create a scenario where a child feels motivated to use expressive language to get their needs met. We can do this by placing items out of reach, placing toys in tightly sealed containers, or designing a silly/unusual situation that a child will want to comment on. The key to successfully implementing this strategy is to sabotage the environment when your child cannot see it happening. This way, you can avoid being the “bad guy”. You will want to create an opportunity for yourself to be the “good guy” who helps get the toy down, opens the box, or laughs and fixes the upside-down chair- after your child has drawn attention to it with their communication skills, of course!

Tip: Use a pause during a familiar song or interaction to indicate that it’s time for your child to fill in the blank.

To use this strategy, you will want to first demonstrate and practice a fun routine-based interaction that you and your child can perform together. Depending on your child’s age and interests, this can be a song-based routine such as “row row row your boat”, a toy-based routine such as counting down “three two one.. blastoff” before launching a toy rocket, or an interactive routine such as “peek a boo”. First, you should introduce the routine by modeling the language used for the routine and supporting your child’s involvement. For example, show your child how to play peek-a-boo by covering your eyes and saying “peek….. a….. BOO!” Uncover your eyes while saying “boo”. Once you feel that your child understands the routine and is excited to participate in it, you can start to implement an “expectant pause”. The pause in the routine shows that you expect your child to use their communication skills to fill in the blank. In the peek-a-boo example, the last step is to stop right before saying “boo” with your hands still covering your face. This pause should entice your child to attempt to say “boo!”, which will trigger you to move your hands as the last step of the routine.  

Tip: Provide access to soundless toys or remove batteries from electronic toys.

One of the ways children can have fun while exploring new speech sounds is by observing and practicing “environmental sounds”. Environmental sounds are non-words that represent a sound that occurs in the world around the child. Use of environmental sounds is a typical part of a child’s speech development. You can help your child learn to produce environmental sounds by removing batteries from electronic toys or providing access to soundless toys, so your child will feel tempted to fill in the silence with their own speech. Children who are interested in animals might have fun producing farm animal sounds like “moo”, “baa”, or “quack quack” while playing with a barn toy. Some environmental sounds that a child might use while playing with vehicles include, “vroom”, “beep beep”. “boom”, “woosh”, and “choo choo”. 

#2 Model, Model, Model!

Tip: Select meaningful speech and language models.

It can feel overwhelming to decide which words to model for your young child. Your child’s speech-language pathologist can help choose functional and attainable language for your child’s unique needs. If your child is under two years old it’s typically a good idea to emphasize language models that have p, b, and m speech sounds in them. This is because your child can see your lips moving as you produce these specific consonants. For children of all ages, we can decide which words to model by prioritizing functional communication (e.g. stop, help, want, more, etc.), talking about adults or other children that are important in a child’s life, and paying attention to the toys or objects that are exciting to the child. Try to use these words frequently in your own speech while you are around your child, so your child is exposed to these important words often. Some research shows that a child with a speech or language disorder might need 2-3 times as many exposures as their same-aged peers to learn a new word, so repetition will be beneficial.

Tip: Narrate your own actions and your child’s actions out loud.

When you narrate your own actions out loud you are using a strategy called self-talk. Self-talk sounds like this: “I am going to bounce the ball! It’s so fun. I like the yellow ball.” When you narrate your child’s actions out loud you are engaging in a strategy known as parallel talk. Parallel talk sounds like this: “You have an apple! It’s red. You’re eating the apple.” These strategies will boost your child’s exposure to new words and demonstrate the ways we piece words together to talk about the things we are experiencing. It’s okay if your language modeling feels repetitive! That repetition will likely help your child’s development. When we engage in self-talk and parallel talk we do not expect a child to respond to what we are saying, we just want to expose them to the relevant language.

Tip: Acknowledge what your child says and then expand on it.

This therapeutic strategy, known as expansion, builds upon the language skills your child might already be using independently. To use expansion, you want to acknowledge what your child has already said, and then demonstrate how to build upon it without asking them to copy you. For example, if you are stacking blocks with your child and your child says, “block up”, you can respond with, “block goes up!”. If you are playing with cars and your child says “red car”, you can say, “go red car!” 

Tip: Avoid asking too many questions.

As adults, we often “quiz” children without realizing it! If you are walking with your child and you see a dog you might find yourself asking, “Do you see the dog? What color is it? What does the doggy say? Do you like the doggy?” This can be an overwhelming number of questions for a child to process. Try to utilize declarative language and stick to approximately a 3:1 ratio of statements to questions. For example, instead of asking the questions above when you see the dog together, you could instead say, “Wow it’s a dog! It’s brown and white. Doggies say woof woof! Do you like the doggy?” This reduces the amount of cognitive and performance-based demands placed on your child while still providing beneficial language models.

Tip: Present choices visually while labeling both items.

It’s no secret that most children love to feel like they are in control and they love to make choices. You can model language while offering choices by presenting two items and labeling both before pausing for your child to make their decision. To do this, you want to emphasize that each item has a specific label. For example, if your child is asking for a snack, you can hold a string cheese in one hand and a pear in the other. While presenting the choices to your child say, “Do you want cheese…” (extend the hand with cheese while saying the word “cheese”) “… OR pear” (extend the hand with the pear while saying the word “pear”). This will indicate to your child that each item has a specific word that can be used to make their choice. If your child is not yet imitating or using words and they reach or point to the item they want, you can say something like, “Oh! Cheese! I want cheese!” and give them the cheese.

Tip: Draw attention to your mouth.

To provide a visual model and encourage your child to copy your mouth movements, you can draw attention to your mouth as you model language targets. To do this, you will want to bring items, your hands, or other interesting objects close to your face so your child’s visual attention can easily shift between the item and your mouth as you speak. You do not need to do this for every word or sentence you speak, but you can focus on using this strategy when you are modeling new words or words that are difficult to pronounce. This strategy is particularly effective for words that have /p/, /m/ or /b/ sounds, as these consonants involve highly visible lip movements.

#3 Reinforce Attempts at Communication.

Tip: Be patient as your child practices their speech and language skills!

While a child is learning new speech and language skills, they will likely require extra time to process new information, complete a thought, or generate words for what they want to communicate. Providing your child with ample time to process their ideas and select the right way to communicate them is very important for your child’s development. Children who repeat sounds or words (stutter) will also benefit from uninterrupted talking time. Try to avoid finishing your child’s sentences for them.

Tip: Provide eye contact & positive nonverbal language.

While children are going through periods of speech and language development, it is incredibly important for the people around them to validate and reinforce their attempts at communication. This will encourage the child to continue utilizing their new speech and language skills. You can validate your child’s speech and language use through your facial expressions and your actions. For example, if you are playing with your child one on one, and you hear them imitate a word you have said, you can nod and smile to show them that you have heard and appreciated their imitation attempt- even if it is not “perfect”. Additionally, eye contact, hugs, and smiles can show that you are waiting eagerly for your child to answer questions or take action.

Tip: Use affirming words.

Everyone benefits and appreciates spoken recognition of their hard work. When you hear your child trying to use new speech and language skills you can tell them that you hear them, and you value their efforts. Small, but enthusiastic, verbal praise from family members such as “yes!” or “I heard you!” can go a long way. You can also use more complex praise like, “Thank you for using your words to tell me what you want!” or “I heard you saying, ‘beep beep’ with your brother!” Try pairing affirming statements with a head nod, hug, thumbs up, or eye contact for maximum reinforcement!

Tip: Avoid placing additional demands on your child after they’ve used a new skill.

If your child makes an attempt to use a new language skill, avoid asking them to do “more”. For example, if your child uses the word “open” with you for the first time, immediately open the door instead of asking them to say, “open door”. This will reinforce the attempt and reduce frustration around use of newly acquired skills. We want to make sure that the communication development process feels enjoyable, exciting, and positive.

Taylor

TAYLOR LASKY

Taylor Lasky is a licensed speech-language pathologist and the clinical director of the speech department at Valued Voices. As an early intervention specialist she empowers families to maximize their child’s communication development by harnessing the power of play. Taylor loves to spend her free time exercising, reading a book by the beach, or walking her beloved dog, Sadie. 

Genna

GENNA HENDERSON

Genna has been with Valued Voices since 2019, she joined the family after graduating with her bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in communication sciences and disorders from Pacific University in Oregon. Genna has always been passionate about helping give opportunities to others and believes all children have a joyous light inside them that deserves to be shown to the world. She knows that giving people the chance to express themselves allows them to reach new heights internally and in their communities.