The best way to encourage language and learning in young children
The words are spoken: “Your child has a speech delay.”
The questions rush forward. What does that mean? How do we fix it? Does it happen to many other children? How will this affect them in school? How severe is the delay? What’s normal? IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH MY CHILD?
When I visit the family of a child whose language has been evaluated, these are the questions they ask in every way and variation. I see the concern, the worry. I put myself in the parents’ shoes and know how sad a parent feels: that their precious child might not be perfect or might be behind his peers in an area of development.
And here I am, the bearer of bad news, to tell them their child has a speech delayed.
No. I refuse to play that part. I just don’t look at things that way. Instead of focusing on a child’s delays or weaknesses, I watch the child. I observe his play and interaction with his parents. I look for the child’s most positive skills and their personality traits.
The surprising thing I encounter is that the parents are often unaware of their child’s uniqueness and talents. But since I have seen thousands of children in my career I would say it becomes apparent quickly for me.
The child may not say words, but he hums the tune to many songs, or he can build a complicated Lego tower, or he can already identify letters and numbers. These are all indicators of how the child learns. I start to seek out the child’s learning style. There are four learning styles that I have been able to classify.
The first learning style is the auditory learner or the “listeners.” This type of learner usually has many words that they may use. They are often little parrots, mimicking words and even phrases as young children. These children also may sing the tunes to their favorite songs and memorize lines from TV shows. These are also the young children seeking sounds in everything, banging on pots and pans, talking to themselves, and making noises with their mouths. In my experience, these type of learners generally have stronger language skills than the other types of learning styles due to their interest in sounds, words, and song lyrics and tunes. However, there are still techniques that help support this child’s way of learning. Teaching through singing, using an interesting inflection to your voice, and providing great language models (grammar and vocabulary) all support the “listener’s” learning style.
The second learning style is the visual learner or the “lookers.” This type of learner is the young child that enjoys pictures and objects that are bright and colorful. This learner may enjoy solving puzzles, building towers with blocks and organizing toys into categories and lines. He may enjoy printed ABC’s and printed numbers. When a child has a visual learning style, sometimes he may not attend to language when focusing on visual skills. This child understands language better when shown a visual such as a picture book. This is the child that when shown a book of shapes may name all of the shapes in a book, but that same child cannot say “I’m hungry” or “Pick me up.” When I notice a visual learner that has a speech delay, I explain the importance of adding a visual component to language for the child to build more language associations and thus progress in his language skills. This learner may be more interested in “watching” objects and people, and while doing so may block out language, not respond to his name or follow verbal directions. In the case of the visual learner, it is important for the parent to understand how to encourage the child to look at the parent when there is something important the parent is communicating. You should not do this by being forceful, or threatening but by getting in the child’s visual field or at their level. Sometimes just exposing the child to a stimulating visual environment such as going to the zoo or a museum can be optimal for this learner.
The third learning style I have encountered is the kinesthetic learner or the “doers.” This child is the “active” child. The parents report he has difficulty staying with one activity because he is always moving and exploring. He is using his motor skills often to grab, throw, jump, run and climb. The parent usually feels frustrated because they want to teach their child to read books but the child doesn’t stay long enough to learn. This child usually has difficulty with language because he cannot see language and manipulate the objects in his hands or move. You may have difficulty teaching new vocabulary and phrases. This is the child that enjoys holding objects, pushing objects, watching things fall, and just movement in general. This learning style may be the most challenging for parents when the parents do not know how to capture the child’s interest. This child may have some delays socially because the child doesn’t have the interest in back and forth play, or back and forth conversation. This is the child that you throw the ball to and the child instead of throwing back may drop the ball and seek another toy. Preschool teachers and day care providers might mention that circle time or book reading time is difficult for this child. For this child, I might teach the parent to mimic the child and always add language while you have the child’s interest. I also teach parents to match the child’s attention or speed up their responses to maintain the child’s attention. Rough housing, tickling and movement activities can be of interest to this child but it is important to add language to these activities to help this learner expand his language skills.
The last learning style that I have encountered is a “mixie,” or combination of learning styles. These are the children that may have more that one learning style. The child may be a “doer” and a “looker” at the same time. There are some children that I have encountered that have all three learning styles. Their learning style is ever changing depending on the activity. This is the child that needs the most support because he needs a professional or sometimes multiple professionals to understand his learning style and what learning techniques are best to use. The “mixie” needs a personalized teaching approach. Incorporating an interesting voice, movements in play, and visual components to teachings and play will help motivate and inspire this learner.
Once I find out the child’s strengths, we can come up with a game plan and work together – parents and speech therapist – to bring other areas of development, such as speech, attention and social skills up to par.
I believe this information, learned over thousands of sessions, is valuable whether a child is speech delayed or not because it tells us that we should look for a child’s uniqueness and talents and observe how they learn and experience in order to encourage.
Learning styles may change overtime, but often they are there from the beginning. If you detect what that learning style is and foster it early on and throughout the child’s life, the sky’s the limit.
This awareness allows parents to see that there may be another way to teach their non-verbal child, a new way that will foster growth in understanding and talking.