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Debunking Common Speech Therapy Myths

If you’re a parent or caregiver concerned about your child’s speech or language development, chances are you’ve done some research. There’s a lot of information out there--some of which can be inaccurate, misguided, or incomplete! That’s why it’s so important to be able to separate fact from fiction.

As speech-language pathologists, it’s our job to not only provide high-quality therapy to our clients, but education as well. The more you know about speech therapy and childhood development, the easier it becomes to make more informed decisions about your kiddo’s care.

In this article, we break down some of the most pervasive myths about communication development.

Myth #1:  All children outgrow their speech or language delay

The years of 0-3 are critical years for brain development and language acquisition.

It’s true that every child is different. And every child develops on their own timeline. However, while about 70-80% of children who are “late bloomers” will eventually catch up to their peers once they enter school, what about the 20-30% of children that don’t?

Delays in speech and language abilities may indicate a larger cognitive or developmental issue that has not yet been diagnosed. It could also signal an underlying issue that can be difficult to detect at an early age. Language delays can lead to difficulty socializing with peers, participating in school, literacy and reading readiness, and more. Providing support can only help with all of these crucial skills later on down the road.

In short, the “wait and see” approach may be tempting, but it isn’t always the right choice. Speech and language skills build upon one another, and the longer invention is delayed, the more a child can fall behind. Speaking with a speech-language pathologist can provide peace of mind and help you determine the best course of action.

Myth #2:  Learning two languages at once causes speech delay

This is one of the most common myths out there that continues to cause confusion among parents of bilingual children. It’s also been put in the spotlight in recent years as more children grow up in bilingual households with multiple languages spoken. According to the annual American Community Survey (ACS), in 1980 about 11% of households in the United States were bilingual, whereas in 2018 that number nearly doubled to 21%.

Here’s the simple truth: raising your child in a bilingual household, or teaching them more than one language at once, does not cause a speech or language delay.

This myth is most likely rooted in the common practice of “code switching,” which happens when children (or adults) mix words from two languages into the same sentence. Many adults naturally code switch all the time in conversation.

Children learn language by absorbing and mimicking those around them. They also have a more limited bank of vocabulary, and will often “select” a word from their other language when speaking to express their thoughts. This isn't a delay at all! In fact, it’s quite resourceful.

So while it may appear that a child is delayed, they may just be trying to figure out which word is appropriate for the circumstance. Eventually this code mixing will become seamless.

Research continues to dispel any myth that bilingual children have a greater chance of being speech delayed. Conversely, think of the amazing gift you’re giving your child by teaching them two languages. From cognitive advantages, to greater social skills, to being able to experience different cultures or speak with family members, the benefits of knowing two languages are endless.

Myth #3:  Teaching a baby sign language will stunt their language growth

“If my baby learns signs to communicate their needs, won’t they be less likely to develop speech or language skills?”

No. If anything, teaching a baby sign language in conjunction with a verbal model promotes language development.

Remember, before children say their first words, they use other forms of nonverbal communication to express their thoughts: crying, pointing, gesturing, etc.

Teaching simple signs and gestures enables your little one to express their wants and needs more easily than putting together the motor planning required for words. Using the sign for “more” is a lot easier for a child who hasn’t even said “mama” yet. And often, the more tools a child has to adequately communicate, the less likely they’ll need to resort to unwanted behaviors.

As a child’s imitation of sounds and words increases, these gestures typically fade out as they become unnecessary. Wouldn’t you rather your child gesture “all done” than throw the rest of their food onto the floor?  

Myth #4:  Speech therapy is just for talking

The term “speech therapy” may give the impression that it only covers issues relating to articulation, lisps, or stuttering, but in reality our profession diagnoses and treats a wide range of conditions.

For example, did you know that speech-language pathologists also work on expressive and receptive language, early childhood development, pragmatic skills, cognitive rehabilitation, and safely swallowing and feeding? We also help with voice disorders and accent modification that may be affecting a person’s communication or with aural rehabilitation associated with hearing loss.

But wait! That’s not all. Our profession also participates in crucial traumatic brain injury rehabilitation, helps people with communication anxiety related to public speaking or interpersonal communication, and works with individuals to help attain a voice that is truly congruent and aligned with their authentic self.

In summary, speech therapy covers an extremely large scope of practice for both children and adults. While all speech-language pathologists are licensed and certified to treat these issues, in reality many clinicians specialize in certain areas. That’s why when researching and choosing a speech therapist to work with, it’s incredibly important to find someone who’s experienced in your area of need. This isn’t always easy in many settings, such as rural or remote areas, which can be a major bonus of online speech therapy.

Myth #5: Children can’t be tested for language concerns until they’re in school

As mentioned, early intervention can only help a child in their development of speech and language. While it’s true that some sounds are developed later in childhood, the foundation of strong communication skills starts at birth.  

Speech therapy can be appropriate for all children, regardless of age. In a child’s earlier years, the most effective intervention involves coaching and educating parents on how they can promote language growth at home throughout their child’s daily life. This is because children learn best in their home environment interacting with people they love most.  

Using standardized tests, speech therapists are able to evaluate these critical developmental milestones at any age. Waiting until a child is in school may affect their ability to bond with their family or peers in a new setting. If a child is frustrated and having difficulty communicating, it’s best to get ahead of these issues before they meet more complex communication demands at school.

Myth #6: Speech therapy is just playing with toddlers

This isn’t so much a myth as it is a misperception about the effectiveness of play-based activities in promoting speech and language skills. It’s understandable that play time could be thought of as a “break” from learning, but in reality, it’s essential for toddlers.

Let’s take the simple activity of rolling a ball back and forth with your kiddo. It may seem simple, but think of all the new vocabulary your child is learning: go, roll, ball, my turn, your turn, fast, slow, stop, please. In addition to eliciting new words, this activity is key for teaching turn taking, sharing, cause and effect, and joint attention (when two people focus on the same task or activity). This back-and-forth exchange of rolling a ball also mimics communication - one person talks, the other responds.

Whether you’re stacking blocks atop each other, pushing a toy car, or playing with a pretend telephone, these simple, guided, and structured activities are all key to helping children explore the world around them and learn foundational language skills. Plus, they’re super fun! And the more children engage and participate, the more willing they’ll be to learn.

Myth #7: Boys start talking later than girls, so you shouldn’t be concerned

Every child develops at their own pace. While some girls may reach their communication milestones earlier, that doesn’t mean that parents and caregivers shouldn’t regularly monitor for signs of speech and language disorders.

If you notice your child struggling to express their needs, understand others, or is falling behind their peers, it’s important to consider speaking with a speech-language pathologist and pursuing an evaluation, regardless of gender.

Myth #8: Speaking “baby talk” will cause delayed speech

In general, any verbal interactions with your baby is helpful to their development. The more language a child hears, the more language they’re likely to learn and begin using themselves.

However, if you’ve ever done an internet search, or spoken with friends and family, you may have heard varying opinions about the impact of “baby talk.” It’s an often discussed subject with many viewpoints.

Baby talk includes using a higher pitched voice, shorter words, exaggerated facial expressions, and even repetitive sounds. In short, it’s a more animated way of speaking.

Studies have shown that using baby talk can be helpful to a child’s development and even promote language growth. Children also respond positively to baby talk, and it can help to soothe big emotions, establish a bond with your child, and gain their attention.

With that said, there’s a few ways to effectively use baby talk, and some things to avoid. It’s important to still use proper speech with your baby, even if you’re changing your cadence or melody. Try to avoid using incorrect grammar or substituting silly sounds for actual words. For example, using exaggerated baby talk to say “put the shoes on your feet,” is preferred to saying, “put the shozie on your widdle toesies.”  

Myth #9: Speech therapy is more effective in person

Speech therapy and early intervention are most effective when parents and caregivers are actively involved in their child’s progress.

Learning foundational speech and language skills is like learning any other skill - it requires practice, persistence, and repetition. Attending speech therapy sessions for 30-60 minutes a week with your speech therapist is helpful, but it’s ultimately the time you put in between those sessions - implementing language-building techniques throughout your child’s daily life - that will make the biggest difference.

While your speech therapist will provide coaching and helpful strategies you can use at home with your child, ultimately no one spends more time with your child than you! That’s why “where” speech therapy is delivered is much less important than “how” it’s delivered.

Online speech therapy is a wonderful option for many families given its inherent advantages. Teletherapy eliminates travel times; provides quality care and instruction in a child’s home, where they feel most comfortable; and allows families to more easily participate in sessions at a time that's convenient for their schedule. Plus, many studies have shown that online speech therapy is just as effective for children in helping them reach their communication goals.

So how does it actually work?

Well, let’s get one thing out of the way: We’d never expect a toddler to sit in front of a screen for 30 minutes (unless it's their favorite episode of "Paw Patrol"). And we definitely don’t expect a toddler to do their speech homework by themselves between sessions.

During your virtual speech therapy sessions, your speech therapist will work directly with you and your child, introducing new techniques that can be practiced during and, most importantly, after your sessions. They’ll guide you through evidence-based methods to elicit speech and language in toddlers. As you use these strategies at home and tell your speech therapist how they're working, your therapist will continue to tailor recommendations to most effectively help your child reach their communication goals.

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