Changing lives one sound at a time

Issue: Volume 96, Number 18

Posted: 16 October 2017
Reference #: 1H9fQZ

When almost five-year-old Braxton Benson went on his school visit last term, he did something his mother Amy wasn’t expecting: “He put his hand up and answered a maths question!” she says with disbelief.

After a year of help from a Ministry of Education speech language therapist, Braxton is a different kid.

“He’s become more confident. He’s making new friends; he now has a group of friends.”

The Hutt Valley youngster had a tough start to life. He didn’t breathe when he was born and was later diagnosed with laryngomalacia – a condition that causes floppy tissue to fall into the airways, leading to noisy breathing and difficulty feeding.

“He had to have a few operations, then he had grommets,” Amy recalls, adding that when you’re so worried about your child’s health, other developments such as speech take a back seat.

However, Amy became concerned when Braxton didn’t start speaking at the same age as his older sister. Then when he did speak, he was very hard to understand. He had little interest in talking to people and found ways to show what he was saying or picked other words when people couldn’t understand him.

“People would say, ‘you can’t compare them’ and ‘it’s just a boy thing’.”

But Braxton’s paediatrician and ear, nose and throat specialist also became concerned and referred him to the Ministry of Education for speech therapy.

That’s when Ministry speech language therapist Bianca Vowell started working with the Benson family.

Work with preschoolers involve short, fun and regular assessments, but the bulk of the work is with the adults in their lives; arming them with resources and advice.

“Early learning centres can play an important role in helping develop language. Parents may want to do more, but can’t be around because of day-to-day commitments. The centre’s role is then make or break.”

The children with whom Bianca works can have speech difficulties and/or oral language needs. Other children can have complex learning needs, also known as global development delay, caused by conditions such as autism. “These children might have a speech therapist, an early intervention teacher and possibly an educational psychologist.”

Interactive screen time and reading

Accessing speech therapy is important because if kids have trouble getting their ideas across, they can get frustrated and lose confidence, she says. For young children this also affects the way they interact with their friends.

When they get to school it can hamper their abilities to participate in the classroom and can impact on their literacy. “That then cuts across the entire curriculum; understanding how sounds go together to make words, the connection between letters and words; how the whole reading and writing system works.”

Children who struggle to communicate can become withdrawn from learning or become disruptive.

Bianca doesn’t believe screen time is the root of all evil when it comes to oral language development.

“Screen time in itself isn’t an issue, but kids don’t learn language because it’s passive. If they’re discussing what they’re seeing with someone else, then they’re learning. It’s when screen time comes at the expense of interaction that it’s a problem.”

Bianca says parents need to take time to play with their kids. “Interactive reading is very important.”

Getting help early

There’s growing recognition that the earlier speech and language difficulties are picked up, the easier they are to fix.

Ministry Learning Support National Director David Wales says evidence shows that recognising early when children need help and responding quickly can make the transition to school successful and can prevent issues down the track.

That’s why the Government put $6 million in this year’s Budget into targeted and specialist support for three- and four-year-olds with oral language needs. Part of this investment will go to funding 10 additional speech language therapists. Speech language therapists will also provide a tiered response, which involves helping early learning services create language and literacy rich environments, says David.

“There will also be additional training and coaching for 480 teachers on how to promote oral language and literacy. And there’ll be more tailored support for children who have additional needs.”

This comes on top of an announcement last month about changes to learning support being trialled at three Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako. The new model is more flexible, more accessible and better coordinated, says David. “It’s centred on getting the right support for children, at the right time, at the right place.”

Rewarding work

Bianca says speech therapists can help children and their families make the transition to school. They talk with the early learning centre about what will make the change easier and hold transition meetings with the school.

“If a child doesn’t understand what’s going on and can’t follow multi-step instructions, teachers need strategies to get those messages across to them.”

Like most kids, Braxton is a bit nervous about starting school this term, but Amy says he now has a few more tools up his sleeve to work things out.

“He’s also talking things through with me more. There’s definitely been an improvement, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Bianca says for young kids the biggest benefit of having speech therapy is better social interactions. “It’s no longer getting frustrated with their peers. Being able to negotiate is the big thing, especially over toys. Little kids just snatch. Once they get older, then they’re learning social skills.”

Being able to communicate with confidence flows into better learning, she says.
“They think ‘I can learn colours and letters, because I’m not failing everything and people can understand what I’m saying’.”

For speech language therapists, the rewards of working with young children can be slow coming, Bianca says. “You put a lot in and there’s a lag before you see results. But when you do, it’s all worth it.” 

Communication ages and stages:
(taken from Much More Than Words)

By three years old, most children:

  • understand instructions containing three key words, eg “get the spoon and the big cup”
  • use vocabulary of several hundred words including describing words such as “fast” and “small”
  • combine three or more words into a sentence, eg “what is Daddy doing?”
  • play imaginative games, e.g. pretending a block is a phone
  • can talk about things that aren’t present
  • take an interest in other children’s play and sometimes join in
  • take an interest in playing with words, e.g. rhyming words
  • are starting to recognise a few letters
  • can be understood by unfamiliar adults most of the time.

By four years old, most children:

  • understand more complex language structures
  • ask lots of “what”, “where” and “why” questions to find out new information
  • take part in longer and more complicated make-believe play sequences with peers
  • enjoy simple jokes – even if they don’t make sense!
  • can recognise their own written name
  • know some letter names
  • can recognise some printed words in the environment
  • are attempting to write their name
  • are starting to use talking to make friends and solve problems
  • can talk about what they’ve done and what they might do
  • can be understood by unfamiliar adults almost all the time.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:00 am, 16 October 2017

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