One of the first signs parents tend to notice signaling there might be something different about their child’s development is speech. There are milestones that children are supposed to reach by certain ages, which are getting pretty detailed. I always feel when I take my children to their pediatrician that I am taking a test. Does your child say two word sentences, do they point to objects they want, can they identify their nose? Especially for my first, uh was I supposed to be working on finding body parts with her already? Mom fail. I wish they would have given me this list of milestones earlier so that I could work on them with my children to “pass the test”.
Speech is an interesting milestone because these typical guidelines do not fit all children. Some children may be advanced in their speech and still have things that are impeding their development that should be addressed. Other children are behind on speech but don’t have something impeding their development and do catch up. Let’s talk about something I wish my pediatrician would have talked to me about when I took Ruby in to her 2 year appointment. Communication vs. speech.
Speech Vs. Communication
A child can have words but not use them to communicate. This is a good description of Ruby. At age 2 she had about 50 words, which led her pediatrician to believe that there was nothing a-typical about her development. The number of words is not always the best indicator of your child’s communication abilities. Does your child use their words to actually communicate?
Ruby’s words she had were labels of things: slide, butterfly, airplane, Elmo. She would use them to say things she saw. She did not have words for more abstract concepts like: big, little, hungry, want, sad, etc. When you get into these more abstract words the capabilities to communicate desires, thoughts, and wants increase. Around age 2, children are gaining those abstract language skills so they can communicate with you. If your child is only using labels in ways that are not meaningful (sees a butterfly and says “butterfly” but nothing else like “butterfly pretty”) then this is an indicator that their speech skills need some attention.
Can your child answer questions? It takes a lot of receptive language (understanding words and language) to be able to answer questions and the ability to pay attention long enough to really hear the words. Ruby could not answer yes and no questions. Whenever someone would ask her a question she would just stare at them and then walk away. People might say, “oh she just doesn’t want to answer you”. This could be true for some of the time, but if this is the typical response, then there is probably something that is making it difficult for your child to answer questions.
Using language is called expressive language. This is what the milestones tend to measure, what your child actually says. There are a lot of skills that your child has to have before they start talking. Three of the biggest that apply for my daughter are receptive language, attention and concentration, and motivation. Motivation might be a surprising one, but if your child doesn’t have the motivation to talk, they are less likely to.
There are many ways to communicate needs. Think about if your child uses communication to tell you about their needs. Let’s take if they are thirsty. For Ruby I used to either anticipate her needs “oh she hasn’t had a drink for a while I’ll go give her one”, or she would just get it herself (she goes and gets her drink on the table, and will probably throw it on the ground when she is done). In both of these situations, Ruby did not actually communicate with me at all to get her drink. If she came to me, took my hand, took me to the fridge and pointed, she would be communicating to me that she wanted something from the fridge. Communication! Independence is good, but if your child does not need to communicate with you at all and they are struggling with their language skills, then put them in situations where they have to communicate with you to get what they want. This will increase their motivation to using language.
Building Language Skills
At any language level, we always want to encourage further development. It is important to understand where your child is at in their language to know how to help them. For instance, if your child has great receptive language skills (knows what you are saying, is able to answer yes and no questions, can follow directions) but has limited words they use, then you know to look at the skills they need to develop using those words. If your child’s receptive language skills needs some more development, then working on getting your child to say words to meet the milestones may not be the best place to start. When your child has a firm foundation of language they will be more likely to gain more language skills and keep them. We want our kids to be able to communicate with us and the world, and developing meaningful communication will help them to see they have power int his world to affect things and will increase their confidence. I will provide some tips on how to encourage speech in additional posts!