Last month I wrote about the early intervention program that is required by law in every U.S. state and territory to provide services to qualifying infants or toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities. After going through the intake and evaluation process with my son, my husband and I learned he had a 33 percent delay in expressive language, and we opted to enroll him in a speech therapy program.
After attending several therapy sessions, I have the following advice for parents who want to get the most out of their child’s therapy sessions—whether they are for speech or any other type of developmental delay:
Recognize that therapy is “play.”
According to my son’s speech therapist, many parents go into the sessions expecting worksheets and an intensive drilling of skills. They may be a little surprised when the therapist pulls out a variety of toys and starts to play with the child. However, each toy and game serves two specific purposes: it grabs the child’s attention, and it relates to a specific skill.
For example, one toy my son’s therapist used was a simple coffee can with holes punched in the lid. My son was entranced as he spent the next five minutes putting different-colored straws through the holes in the lid. However, he also practiced making d-sounds as the therapist guided him to say “drop” each time a straw went in the canister and then “dump” when he poured them all out again.
Be present at therapy sessions.
If at all possible, sit in and observe multiple therapy sessions. You will soon pick up on some of the techniques the therapist uses with your child, which you can then apply on your own. I was amazed by how many simple-yet-effective communication skills I learned. For example, instead of letting my son point to the sippy cup he wanted to use each morning, I learned to prompt him so he’d have to give me a verbal response: “Do you want the blue cup or the green cup?”
Communicate with the therapist.
If you are not able to be present for therapy sessions, ask your child’s therapist to call or e-mail you after a session to provide a brief progress report. Find out what specific skill your child worked on and what accomplishments your child made. Also keep the therapist apprised of any gains or setbacks you notice in your child. This will help the therapist monitor your child’s overall progress.
For instance, after he’d completed a few speech therapy sessions, I suddenly noticed that my son was becoming much more vocal in terms of repeating what my husband and I said—without any prompting. Communicating this information to the therapist helped her determine that our son had achieved one of the goals in his development plan—unprompted imitation of language.
Practice with your child.
Just like playing an instrument or riding a bike, the main way a child makes progress with developmental skills is through practice, practice, practice. Look for ways to incorporate the techniques you observe into your child’s everyday life. My husband and I have turned elements of our son’s daily routine into opportunities for practicing speech. During diaper changes, we sing songs with repetitive phrases that he’ll repeat. At bath time, we offer him two different toys and prompt him to verbally respond with his choice. At bedtime, we read books about animals and he mimics their sounds.
I am amazed at the amount of progress my son has made in such a short amount of time, and I am grateful that the affordable services of my state’s early intervention program are available to him. I would definitely encourage parents who suspect their child has a developmental delay to take advantage of this program. It is a valuable resource that, along with parental engagement, can be the key to a child’s success.
Jennifer Eckert is a supervising editor at National Geographic Learning and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago with her husband, son, and three cats.