The Risk of Speech and Language Delays in Foster Children

As children grow, a safe, loving home with attentive caregivers is important for their development. But what happens when that home life is disrupted? The trauma and life changes that foster children experience can lead to speech and language delays. This article explains how a foster child’s communication skills may be affected, and how to get them the support they need to stay on track with their peers.

How common are speech problems in foster children?

When a child is in the foster system, they may have experienced trauma at a young age. Where they live and who they live with can change often. Because childhood development is tied so closely to having a stable environment, it’s not surprising that many foster children are at risk for speech or language problems. One study estimates that the prevalence of language delays ranges from 35% to 73% in foster children younger than age 6. 

One study estimates that the prevalence of language delays ranges from 35% to 73% in foster children younger than 6. 

The age at which a child enters foster care may also be a factor. The first three years of a child’s life are some of the most formative for language. Children’s brains are growing and developing quickly, laying the foundation for the years ahead. When a child’s early years are disrupted, they are at risk of developing a speech and language delay.

Why do some foster children have developmental delays?

Foster children are also at risk for developmental challenges in areas such as cognitive functioning. These problems can result from having adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, at a young age. Many foster children have been abused or neglected, which puts them at a higher risk for problems with cognitive development. Neglect, in particular, can have a negative impact on a child’s language development. In addition, children who are in foster care have been reported to have poorer health at birth than children who aren’t in foster care. These health issues may be linked to developmental challenges. 

However, we know that early intervention makes a big difference for all children, including those in the foster system. If a child needs an intervention such as speech therapy, the sooner they can begin, the better progress they’ll make. And that starts with knowing when your child might need help.

Signs of speech and language problems in children

There are a few key areas of speech and language development that may be impacted in foster children.

1 Receptive and expressive language

Receptive language refers to the words a child understands. Expressive language refers to how a child communicates, both verbally and nonverbally. For children with delays in these areas, you may notice that they have trouble understanding what’s said to them, following directions, using words, or clearly expressing their thoughts and needs.

2 Speech sounds, or articulation 

Children can also have trouble as they learn to say new sounds. It may be hard for other people to understand them when they talk. As toddlers grow into kindergarteners, they should acquire new speech sounds each year. When they have trouble in this area, it’s referred to as a speech sound disorder.

3 Fluency and stuttering

Fluency refers to the smoothness of a person’s speech. “Disfluent,” or interrupted, speech is related to stuttering. Some children may develop a stutter as they’re growing up. Although rare, stuttering can also happen after emotional trauma. Children who stutter may stutter more when they’re under stress.

4 Social communication, or pragmatics

Social language, also referred to as pragmatics, is the ability to use appropriate communication in various social situations and contexts. It involves knowing how and when to say certain things. Examples of social communication include body language, speaking appropriately to others, and engaging in a back-and-forth conversation while staying on topic. Children who have trouble in these areas can benefit from speech therapy. 

Speech and language milestones in young children

Foster parents have an incredibly important and life-changing role. You do so much to give children a safe, loving home. That may include looking for ways to support them in their speech and language development. For some easy guidance, check out these charts to see if your foster child is on track:

If you have any concerns, trust your gut! Talk with your pediatrician about what you’re seeing. It never hurts to have your child evaluated for therapies they may need in order to thrive.

How to help your foster child get speech therapy

Children in public school have access to speech therapy. If you suspect your child may have delays in speech or language, ask that the school test them. If your child qualifies, they’ll be able to see a speech therapist during the school day.

If your child isn’t yet school-age, or you’d like them to receive services in addition to school speech therapy, talk with your child’s case worker. The process for accessing therapy may vary from state to state. Your case worker will know how to move forward.

What does speech therapy for children look like? 

You may be curious about what speech therapy is actually like for kids. For children, speech therapy sessions are often play-based. Speech therapists will use toys, crafts, activities, and games to help keep kids motivated to learn and practice. Speech therapists know that learning new communication skills isn’t always easy. That’s why they try to make therapy as fun as possible. 

Speech therapists also use play simply because it’s how kids learn best. Children learn language and how to interact with other people through playing. Think about it–playing with another person mimics the back-and-forth of communication. That’s one reason why experiencing neglect early in life can affect a child’s communication skills.

It may be helpful to look for a speech therapist who knows how to provide trauma-informed care.

If you’re searching for a speech therapist, it may be helpful to look for one who provides trauma-informed care. This means the speech therapist understands how trauma can affect people, and how children might behave or respond as a result of those experiences. They can structure speech therapy in a way that best supports your foster child’s needs.

How can you help your foster child’s speech at home?

Throughout speech therapy, your speech therapist will create goals to help your foster child improve their communication skills. They will monitor your child’s progress and keep you updated along the way. They’ll also give you ideas and suggestions for what you can practice with your child at home.

Children make the most progress when there is “carryover” between learning skills in therapy and practicing them at home. This can be challenging for foster children who are moving from place to place. For as long as you have your foster child in your care, try to follow through on your speech therapist’s recommendations for practice. Even if you only have a little time with your foster child, you can make a huge difference in their ability to express themselves!

Sign up for our newsletter
Fun and easy speech and language tips served up every month!

More from

Watch learning jump (leap! spring! hop!) from your sessions into the real world.

Get started