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Mother, May I? Yes, You May (Talk Better) – With a Little Help From Mom and Dad

The month of May is Better Hearing and Speech Month. This is a good time for parents to increase their awareness that their children may need extra help from them to learn to talk better.

When children seem slower than other children to talk clearly and well enough to communicate, parents often start wondering…When will my child start talking like he should? When will she talk clearly? Why is he struggling to learn to talk? Will she need therapy?

Here are some tips to address your concerns:

1. Make sure your child can hear adequately. Discuss your concerns with your child’s physician. You can make an appointment with a clinical audiologist for a hearing test with or without a doctor’s referral. Be sure to check your health insurance policy for any requirements you must meet in order to have the visit paid for.

2. Really tune into your child. Watch him play. Watch what is interesting to him. Becoming a great observer is the first step to helping your child more.

3. Start writing down all of your observations. What does your child understand when you tell her about something or to do something? Make sure you observe what she understands based on your words alone without pointing to or otherwise indicating what you are talking about.

4. Also, write down all of the ways your child tries to communicate with you. Does he point, look, take you to things, babble, use sounds or words to tell you what he wants, needs, or is thinking about?

5. Really “be there” for your child. Be extra careful with this one! Even if you think you are together most of the time, make sure she has your full attention during many periods of the day. That requires not staying too busy all day long with household or other work tasks, limiting computer time when the child is awake, and reducing time spent talking on the phone. Turn off the TV to eliminate that distraction that has been shown to reduce the amount of good language interaction between parents and children. Children increasingly seem to be competing with their parents’ cell phones for ear time. Children need to be heard and responded to in positive, supportive ways. Don’t allow electronic “improvements” in daily life replace “old-fashioned” parent-child interaction that occurs when parents talk with children about interesting things.

6. Play! Set out a few toys and see how many different ways you can use them to have fun with your child. For example, little plastic nesting cups can become towers, hats on blocks or stuffed animals, containers for other items, or pretend telephones or cups/bowls for pretend meals. Start playing, make comments, wait and see what interests your child. Repeat something fun as many times as it is appealing. Switch gears when your child loses interest-or right before. Of course, be on the floor as close to eye level with your child as possible so you can each see the delight in one another’s faces! Getting down to eye level as often as possible throughout the day when talking to your child is very helpful.

7. Squash your desire to ask your child a lot of direct questions. Most parents ask their young children tons of questions. Even though this is normal, resist the urge. Practice turning questions into statements.

8. Talk a lot with your child, and use straightforward statements. Statements show your child how to express ideas. They are great language models. Start with a sentence and then repeat your same idea in a phrase and then again in a follow-up single key word. I call this systematic reduction of a sentence the Upside-Down Pyramid way of talking with young children. This method works very well to make vocabulary and language much more apparent to young language learners.

9. Play around with sounds. Make goofy sounds, and make sound effects for things. Make animal sounds and environmental sounds like jets, sirens, motorcycles, and so on. Many children will use sound effects in place of real words before they are able to say those words. These “vocal gestures” can be very useful.

10. Keep learning. Read what you can online and in books and articles–like this one! Search the public section of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA.org) web site. If you have concerns, talk with your child’s doctor. Ask about local resources such as the public sector Early Intervention program in your area or a children’s hospital or other program in the private sector. Schedule an evaluation if your child’s development seems to be very different from what is typical at his or her age. It’s better to find out early whether children could use some extra help to acquire speech-language skills that are critical for success in school and in relationships with others.

Trust your intuition. Make the most of your child’s early years. You are your child’s best advocate and early teacher. Let May – or August, November, February, or any month – nudge you to take your child’s communication needs to heart – and then take action.

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