If you think your child might have a speech or language delay, you’re probably looking for ways to help them. That might include watching videos or doing research online. (We’re glad you’re here, by the way!)
It can be stressful and discouraging to see your child struggling to communicate. It’s natural to want to do all you can to improve your child’s speech. You may be wondering if speech therapy can be done at home, or if parents can do speech therapy themselves.
The truth is that speech therapy can’t be done by anyone other than a licensed speech-language pathologist, also known as a speech therapist. It’s extremely important for a child with a communication delay to be under the guidance of a treating speech therapist.
However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t things families can (and should!) do at home for a child’s speech. They simply need to be done alongside formal speech therapy.
Let’s talk about why professional speech therapy is so important, why apps and Youtube videos can’t replace speech therapy, and what you can do at home to help your child make faster progress.
Getting the right diagnosis for speech problems
One of the biggest reasons speech therapy can’t be done without a speech therapist is the importance of receiving the right diagnosis. There are many reasons a child may have trouble communicating. Some examples of communication diagnoses include:
There are a few types of language disorders:
Receptive language disorder: In the broadest sense, receptive language is the comprehension of spoken language. As children grow and develop their communication skills, they must first be able to understand language in order to use it appropriately.
A receptive language disorder is an impairment of the ability to understand language. Children may struggle to grasp the meaning of what people are saying. Or they may have trouble interpreting the context of written words when reading or writing. This can make it difficult to make sense of the world around them.
Expressive language disorder: An expressive language disorder is an impairment of verbal (and nonverbal) communication.
A child with an expressive language disorder may be able to understand what's spoken to them, but they have trouble expressing what they need to say. They may struggle with learning and using new vocabulary words, understanding how to string a series of words together into a clear sentence, or telling a story.
While all communication problems can be difficult for children, expressive language disorder can be particularly frustrating. Often, children know exactly what they want to say, but it doesn't translate into a legible sentence once they begin talking.
Mixed expressive-receptive language disorder: A mixed language disorder is when there are delays in both the expressive and receptive skills mentioned above.
Speech sound disorders
A speech sound disorder can cause a child’s speech to be harder to understand. There are a couple main types of speech disorders:
Articulation disorders: Producing speech sounds involves coordinated movements of the lips, tongue, teeth, palate (top of the mouth), and respiratory system (lungs). Children with articulation disorders have difficulty using these motor functions to physically make the correct speech sounds. The result is the inability to pronounce clear words past a certain age.
Phonological disorders: Phonological disorders involve a regular pattern of errors. The person may be able to produce individual sounds correctly, but they have difficulty putting these sounds together to form words. For example, they may be able to make the /d/ sound, but they swap it out for the /g/ sound in certain words, saying “doe" instead of "go."
Keep in mind that these are only a few examples of communication-related diagnoses. Speech and language problems can also be caused by autism, childhood apraxia of speech, and other conditions. That’s why it’s so important for a speech therapist to evaluate and diagnose the child. From there, they will create a personalized treatment plan with exercises and techniques tailored to the child’s needs. They can also recommend other types of therapy or support that your child might need in order to thrive.
Can speech therapy be done at home?
If a parent tries to self-diagnose and treat a communication disorder, it’s likely that they may misdiagnose. For example, maybe the parent thinks their child has an articulation delay because they barely speak, and when they do, they’re hard to understand. In reality, the child may have an expressive language disorder.
The treatments for these disorders aren’t the same. The parent may try to help the child with pronunciation, when the child actually needs help with the building blocks of language development, which come before specific speech sounds. For the child to make progress, those needs would have to be addressed. Even more significantly, the delay or disorder could worsen because the child would not be receiving proper intervention.
Even more significantly, the delay or disorder could worsen because the child would not be receiving proper intervention.
A licensed speech therapist is also qualified to verify that a delay or disorder is truly present. In some cases, parents might suspect their child has a speech delay when the child is actually right on track.
For example, it isn’t uncommon for parents to wonder why their 1-year-old isn’t using sentences, or worry that it’s hard for most people to understand their 2-year-old. In actuality, those skills aren't expected at that age. Seeing a speech therapist to rule out a communication disorder can be just as helpful as identifying one!
What about speech therapy apps and videos?
You may be thinking, “I see so many videos and apps for helping kids learn to talk. Can I use them?”
This is a great question! There are a variety of speech resources available to parents today. YouTube videos and apps that focus on teaching vocabulary, singing songs, and imitating speech sounds seem to be everywhere. While you should be conscious of your child’s screen time, these aren’t inherently bad. They simply shouldn’t be used as a replacement for therapy.
If your child is watching a video focused on speech, you may see them start to imitate what they hear and see. Let’s say your toddler starts saying “Milk!” when they see milk on the screen. This is great! But imitating the word “milk” from a screen, compared to saying “Milk!” when they want to request a drink, are very different skills.
Kids may be more quick to say things they see on a screen rather than to use these words functionally in everyday life. Speech therapy is focused on functional communication: helping your child communicate what they need, want, and feel day to day, in different situations.
Imitating the word “milk” from a screen, compared to saying “Milk!” when they want to request a drink, are very different skills.
You may also find tips online for practicing speech and language at home. Expressable offers a comprehensive library of articles and teaching videos ourselves. That’s because we strongly support parent education and involvement, and we know that home practice, between sessions, is essential for children to make progress. But the key words there are “between sessions.” Home practice should be done under the guidance of a speech therapist who knows your child and their needs.
Think about it like this. Perhaps you notice that your child uses single words but doesn’t speak in longer phrases. You research online and find tips for helping your child say 3- to 4-word phrases. But in reality, your child may not be ready for that, and you’ll have more success working on 2-word phrases. A speech therapist can explain this and guide your home practice.
It’s better for the child’s skill development (and frustration levels!) to start at the right level. Working with a speech therapist can save everyone a lot of time and energy when it comes to situations like this.
How to start speech therapy for your child
It’s admirable to want to help your child with their speech at home. The best place to start is by talking with an experienced speech therapist.
You might feel overwhelmed by the idea of starting speech therapy, and you likely have lots of questions. How can I find a speech therapist? How much does speech therapy cost? Will insurance cover speech therapy for my child? Here are some tips to help the process go more smoothly.
1 Talk with your pediatrician
Your pediatrician may need to write a script for your child for speech therapy. They may also have some recommendations for speech therapists.
You can also call a speech therapy practice directly to see if they do need a script and ask other questions you have.
2 Do some research on speech therapists or speech therapy practices
You can read online reviews or ask family and friends for any personal recommendations.
3 Talk to your insurance if necessary
If you will be using health insurance and want to see if a certain speech therapist is in network, a simple call to your insurance company can take care of this.
4 Get scheduled for a speech evaluation
The speech therapy process begins with a formal speech and language evaluation. You may be able to schedule this quickly, but some practices may have a waitlist. Learn more about what to do if you encounter a waitlist speech therapy.
5 Prepare for the evaluation
Come prepared with notes about how your child communicates and any questions you have. This is your time to talk with the speech therapist and share your concerns. It’s important for the speech therapist to hear from you how your child communicates at home.
If you’re concerned about your child’s speech, don’t wait to schedule an evaluation. Early intervention can make a big difference in how quickly your child can better share their needs, thoughts, and feelings.
Here at Expressable, we see all that you’re doing for your child. We hope this article gives you some encouragement and guidance in helping you get your child exactly what they need.