So you’re thinking about doing speech or language therapy with your toddler…
Perhaps your child’s speech is delayed. Maybe they’re having a difficult time following verbal directions. Or it might be they haven’t said their first words while other similar-aged children have.
Either way, there’s a lot to consider when beginning speech therapy. One of the most important decisions is the setting in which therapy is delivered.
Traditionally, early language therapy meant that you’d travel to a clinic or a speech-language pathologist would come to your home. However, things have changed in the age of technology. Online speech therapy has been rapidly growing in popularity as more families look for affordable and convenient alternatives that provide the same high-quality level of care.
How does online speech therapy work for very young children?
Let’s get one thing out of the way: a speech therapist would never recommend or expect a toddler to sit in front of a screen for 30 minutes during their session. That’s not how children learn best, nor is it how children acquire skills that serve as the building blocks of speech and language development.
In this article, we explore how online speech therapy works for toddlers, and why it can be so impactful in helping them reach their communication milestones.
Caregivers are the key to their child’s communication success
Here’s the most important question to ask yourself: If you’re receiving speech therapy for 30 minutes a week, what happens the rest of the week?
Toddlers often don’t learn language from flashcards, or worksheets, or fancy materials. They learn and absorb language from the people they love and interact with most in their life: you.
In order for meaningful progress to happen, it’s crucial for families to practice and carry over speech therapy techniques in between sessions. Let’s face it: the time you have with your speech therapist is limited, regardless of setting. The important work happens outside of therapy sessions, when a family utilizes techniques that help expand their toddler’s acquisition of language throughout their daily life.
When your speech therapist provides education and coaching on how to meaningfully interact with your child, speech therapy doesn’t just happen 30 minutes a week. Every moment with your child becomes a language-learning opportunity, from brushing their teeth, to taking a bath, to going grocery shopping.
With traditional speech therapy, a parent isn’t usually an active participant in sessions, merely a spectator. The toddler typically focuses on the clinician or the toys that might be inside their bag.
Online therapy, however, puts parents in the driver’s seat. While your therapist is there to provide coaching, helping you learn techniques to purposefully interact with your child to elicit speech and reach language milestones, you’re the one implementing these strategies in the environment most conducive to your child's learning - their home.
This is how children make the most progress, and why parent-led intervention is so effective.
What does online speech therapy look like?
Online speech therapy sessions are tailored for each family and their child’s specific goals. For toddlers, therapists focus on coaching parents and equipping them with the tools, knowledge, and techniques they need to improve their child’s communication abilities.
Toddlers learn language skills through play-based activities. While we often think of play as taking a break from work, it’s quite the opposite. Play is how children learn and explore the world around them, which is why developing good play skills is so beneficial to their language growth and development.
For each speech therapy session, a therapist might ask parents to have a few toys or activities on hand to engage their child. These could be items as simple as bubbles, a ball, Play-Doh, or crayons and paper. While the therapist can certainly initiate play activities virtually and mirror the actions that are happening in the home, it’s essential for parents to be active participants.
Your therapist may introduce a technique and use a parent-coaching model, guiding the family on how to use methods to expand language during play. Examples can include:
Offering choices of two toys and having your child pick
Waiting to take a turn until your child says “go”
Rolling a ball back and forth to mimic a conversational exchange
Using toys for their intended purpose, like making food with a toy kitchen or speaking on a pretend phone
Targeting identification questions, like “where is the dog” or “show me the red block”
Modeling words to see if your child will imitate
What makes this method of therapy so rewarding is that the parent is eliciting language from their child, not the therapist. The therapist is there to introduce new ideas, techniques, and provide support throughout the sessions.
Parent involvement and home-based learning is also incredibly important because it helps newly acquired skills “stick.” For example, even if your child demonstrates a new skill in a traditional setting, if the child can’t “generalize” or recreate these skills in their natural environment, it may not be entirely effective. After all, that’s the entire point of therapy!
That’s why it’s crucial for a parent to understand and regularly reinforce concepts introduced in sessions throughout daily interactions with their child.
What if my child doesn’t pay attention to online sessions?
Parents often worry that their child might have difficulty attending to sessions online. Toddlers may have a history of running away when Grandma joins them on a video call, or become frustrated when they see Mom open up a computer without their favorite Youtube video.
Again, the focus of therapy sessions is on the parent, and teaching them strategies to effectively promote language skills at home and bond with their child.
Keep in mind that regardless of where speech therapy is delivered - online or in-person - it’s often the first time that children are engaged in a structured learning environment. If your child is prone to temper tantrums or has trouble paying attention, this may happen regardless of where therapy takes place.
This adjustment to structured learning can take time. While it’s normal for some initial pushback, after a few sessions children often start building a rapport and relationship with their therapist, which motivates them to stay engaged.
Online speech therapists also do their best to follow each child’s lead and unique interests. This means using toys and activities that your child already loves to keep them attentive and motivated. If a child still has trouble or is unwilling to sit still, a certain amount of structure and direction will be provided by the therapist. After a speech therapist learns your child’s preferences and learning styles, they’ll work to tailor treatment based on their needs.
Other benefits of online speech therapy
In addition to the focus on parent engagement, online speech therapy can be a great option for many other reasons:
1 Home setting
Children learn best in the environment they’re most comfortable. When working with young kids, it’s important for everyone to feel relaxed and able to fully participate. Therapists often refer to this as your “natural environment.”
As mentioned, even if a child learns a new skill in a “structured environment,” like a clinic, that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily use these skills in the real world. With online speech therapy and home practice, your child is already implementing these new skills in their natural environment.
Many studies have compared the outcomes of children receiving online speech therapy versus more conventional in-person settings. In short, online speech therapy is an effective option for the majority of communication needs and goals.
Coordinating sessions around mealtime, naps, as well as packing up to travel for a therapy session can be a daunting task with an uncooperative toddler. Not to mention, long commute times and wasted hours in the car. Online therapy allows you to choose a convenient time that fits with your family’s schedule.
Online speech therapists don’t have to pay many of the traditional costs of running a clinic, like rent, overhead, certain administrative costs, etc. These costs can be passed down to families, which often makes online therapy considerably more affordable.
Another great advantage of online therapy is that it can take place anywhere. As long as the internet signal is strong, a family could participate wherever they happen to be.
In summary, “where” your child receives therapy is much less important than “how” it’s delivered. For toddlers, and children of all ages, online speech therapy is a fantastic way for parents to learn directly from their speech therapist and build strong working relationships. The more you feel empowered as a parent to implement therapy techniques at home, the more progress your child will make towards their goals.