Early intervention: Say What?

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Early intervention can boost language skills and self-esteem

By Erin Rook

Imagine the following scenario: A little boy walks up to a girl and asks, “What’s your name?” The girl stares down at her shoes. She doesn’t want to answer because she’s self-conscious about the way she speaks. Finally, she responds: “Lisa Wichards.”

Humans are social creatures. When children struggle to communicate, it can affect their social development. But early intervention can save time, money, and frustration—and prevent self-esteem issues.

“The earlier children can receive intervention the better,” explains speech-language pathologist Alicia Fox, with local nonprofit clinic KidTalk. “Treatment occurring earlier in a child’s life can be of shorter duration because issues are addressed before ingrained patterns and years of error practice occur.”

The first step is to understand the typical pace of childhood communication development. By the time children are 5 years old—preparing to enter kindergarten—the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) says they should be able to tell a short story, respond to the question “What did you say?” and pronounce all of the sounds in words, even if they sometimes stumble on toughies like l, s, r, v, z, ch, sh, and th.

“Without that early intervention, a child with speech or language concerns may enter Kindergarten and struggle to express himself or understand what is going on in class,” Fox says. As a result, she adds, “he may dislike school and start feeling inadequate. We’d all like to protect kids from that failure cycle that can damage their self-esteem.”

Aside from the more subjective reasons to nip communication issues in the bud, ASHA notes that every dollar spent on early treatment saves $7 in education and treatment in later years.

Fox says the most common communication issues affecting children include difficulty with understanding what words mean and how to use them, saying the sounds of words correctly, using language socially, vocal hoarseness, stuttering, and hearing loss. Research shows that communication disorders affect anywhere from 2 to 25 percent of youngsters, but after taking into account different methodologies, ASHA states that 8 to 9 percent of children are likely affected.

While speech and language issues are often of unknown origin and may disappear as a child ages, Fox says they can also be related to Autism Spectrum Disorder or another underlying disorder.

But even if the child’s communication challenges aren’t a symptom of anything deeper, they can cause struggles all their own. Children who don’t feel heard and understood may become withdrawn or act out.

“Children get frustrated when they are unable to make their needs known. Often kids will attempt to communicate less if they feel it’s likely people won’t understand them,” Fox says. “Otherwise kids may become angry and act out their frustration behaviorally by hitting or kicking, which impacts social success.”

So what’s a parent to do to prevent and appropriately address these challenges? Fox says it’s best to lead by example and give children plenty of practice expressing themselves. “Read to your kids, talk with your kids, follow their interests and give young kids a chance to talk,” Fox explains, adding that it’s better to have a two-way conversation than to grill the child with questions or quiz them on letters and numbers. “Try to give them information by describing daily activities, more than asking questions to ‘test’ their knowledge.”

But talking and reading to a child isn’t always enough to prevent speech and language issues. Fortunately, Fox says, consulting with a speech language therapist—whether through the child’s school, a nonprofit like KidTalk, or a private provider—can yield impressive results.

“I have seen children receive services at age 2 or 3 and then enter kindergarten needing no additional support,” Fox says. “This success in class helps with positive self-esteem.”

Parents can access screenings at no cost at the upcoming Healthy Beginnings event in Bend, May 29 at Nativity Lutheran Church. For more information, including other Central Oregon locations, visit myhb.org or call 541-383-6357.

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