This is the first article in a five-part series exploring the importance of parental involvement in meeting your child’s speech and language therapy goals.
One of the most powerful tools your child has to improve their speech and language problems is also the most accessible: you.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of parental involvement in their child’s therapy. Numerous research studies have shown that when parents and caregivers play an active role in their child’s intervention--as opposed to being passive observer--children make much more progress towards their speech and language therapy goals.
This can be easier said than done, of course. When a child is diagnosed with a speech or language problem, caregivers enter a new and unfamiliar world. From evaluations to treatment plans to therapy exercises, it can feel intimidating and overwhelming. It may be tempting to rely on a speech-language pathologist, or speech therapist, to “fix” the problem. But while speech therapists will use specific techniques and strategies to improve your child’s communication, there’s no substitute for the unique role parents play in their ability to practice with their child at home.
If speech therapists bring expertise on clinical diagnoses and treatments to the table, then families bring expertise on their child.
At the end of the day, it’s really no different than learning to play guitar. Weekly lessons with a hands-on instructor will definitely help you learn scales, strumming techniques, and power chords. But if you don’t practice at home outside of those lessons, it’ll no doubt take you a lot longer to master a grand rendition of "Stairway to Heaven."
The parent's role in speech therapy
When children receive speech therapy in a school or clinic, sessions are often only between the speech therapist and the child. The speech therapist will do their best to update the caregiver in the lobby of the clinic or during an annual annual IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting. But this format isn’t conducive for the in-depth coaching and skill-building it takes to get caregivers truly involved in their child’s speech and language goals.
Over the last several years, caregivers have been recognized as “key players” in their child’s intervention. There are several reasons for this:
You know your child best
Speech therapists do their best to get to know your child: their preferred learning styles, how they handle problems, their struggles. However, a speech therapist can never replace a caregiver's intuitive connection with their child. You know your child's personality and temperament best--as well as when a temper tantrum is looming! By working closely with a speech therapist, you can develop a treatment plan perfectly tailored to your little one.
Learning happens all day, every day
Speech therapists only have limited time with your child every week. Whether a child is learning to pronounce a letter or sound, improve their voice characteristics, or comprehend simple sentences, teaching must be practiced and reinforced routinely. Caregivers have the advantage of spending much more time with their children. And considering children learn to communicate during everyday activities and conversions, no one is better positioned to do that than you.
Speech therapy doesn’t require a desk and a chair; you can use bathtime, play-time, and even trips to the store to make progress on your child’s speech and language goals.
Learning to talk with those who matter
The ultimate goal of speech therapy is to help children improve language skills so they can communicate clearly with those that matter most in their lives. And who is that? Their family. When children see a therapist, they gain valuable knowledge, but when they speak with you on a daily basis, they’re able to put that new knowledge into practice.
Learning speech and language in a comforting environment
Many people get uncomfortable when walking into a medical or therapist office. There’s just a strange clinical feeling that can make children feel uneasy about their surroundings. Working with your child at home, in an environment that’s familiar, is a stress-free way to test the new skills they’ve learned at therapy. It’s also a reason why more and more families are turning to online speech therapy.
What does the research say?
A study conducted by two researchers from Vanderbilt University looked at how well “parent-implemented intervention” worked among groups of parents trained to promote their child’s communication. Here were some key results and takeaways from the study:
Parents were successfully able to understand and learn the strategies taught by the speech therapists, and apply them when interacting with their child.
Parents had a positive effect on their child’s communication development. As a result, children showed improvement in their verbal and nonverbal communication skills, including understanding, vocabulary, grammar, and the frequency with which they communicated.
Parents were just as effective at helping their child as speech therapists were. In fact, when it came to understanding language and grammar, parents were actually more effective than their therapists.
Children with a variety of language difficulties, including language impairment, autism spectrum disorder, and developmental delay, also made substantial progress when their parents were involved.
As this and other studies show, empowering caregivers to work directly with their children can significantly improve their child’s speech-language skills. While parental involvement can't replace ongoing speech therapy with an experienced speech therapist, it should be used to supplement progress and jumpstart their communication goals.
How can you get more involved?
Over the course of this five-part series, we’ll be exploring strategies and exercises caregivers can use with their children, best practices for therapist/parent instruction, and different therapy settings most conducive to parent learning and observation.