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Partnering with parents/caregivers is pivotal to success

Posted by Rebecca Siomra on May 21, 2014 12:05 AM

Rebecca Siomra

To learn, we go to school.
To feel better, we go to the doctor.
To maintain our car, we go to the mechanic.
To get our children to communicate, we go to the speech-language pathologist.

While there is some truth to all of these statements, there is also a lot more involved in reaching the desired outcomes.

More complete statements might be:

To learn, we read books, go online, talk to mentors, and do assigned homework from a teacher.
To feel better, we eat well, exercise, get plenty of rest and follow a doctor’s recommendations.
To maintain our car, we fill it with gas, drive with caution and follow the prescribed maintenance schedule.
To get our children to communicate, we can go to a speech-language pathologist who will do what? Work her magic? Fix the problem? What goes on behind that door, anyway?

I don’t know about my colleagues, but when I graduated from school as a speech-language pathologist, I was not given a magic wand, and therefore, I would say that my role is to help our children learn to communicate, we can seek the guidance of a speech-language pathologist.

 One of the privileges of working as a speech-language pathologist with young children is having the opportunity to coach parents and caregivers. Children grow and change, with or without us — it’s what they do. Parents and caregivers help guide this development every day in whatever they do together and have the amazing opportunity to help the children in their lives reach their potential, even through unexpected challenges.  I’m so fortunate to be able to tag along for the ride.

Let’s face it, parenting can be unpredictable journey, it certainly doesn’t come with a roadmap and when a child needs added support in learning to communicate, it can become very overwhelming.  Whether a child needs help learning to listen, talk, understand or communicate and interact with others more effectively, the first stop is often to the doctor’s office for advice and referrals to a ‘specialist’.

In the past, when a family would arrive for a therapy appointment with the speech-language pathologist, the parents would sit in one room and the child would disappear into another with the ‘specialist’.  In some offices, the parents might watch the session through a two-way mirror.  The session would end, and the therapist might hand the parents a page with homework activities, comment on how the visit went and chat briefly with them about how to prepare for the next session, before sending them on their way.  Everyone would part with a satisfied feeling that steps were being taken to help the child.

Times certainly have changed and many professionals have returned to the teachings of the well-known proverb, ‘Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.’  It is now common practice for parents to be in the therapy room with their child and be an active participant in the session so that they may be more confident in following through with homework.

Damian's mom is an active participant and a valued part of her son's communication strategy
Damian’s mom is an active participant and a valued part of her son’s communication strategy

Today there is also another player in sessions; parents have the Internet and aren’t afraid to use it.  Parents have the ability to ‘Google’ anything they wish about their child’s communication needs. This raises a lot of great questions, as well as some fears, and they need answers.

When parents and caregivers are able to participate in a therapy session, it allows them to build a relationship with the therapist and to become comfortable enough to ask the hard questions they aren’t sure they want the answers to, like: “Will my baby ever look up when I call his name?”, “Does she have autism?”, “Is it my fault that she can’t speak?”.

A parent’s questions can teach a therapist a lot about what kind of support a family needs, and how ready they are to take on a more active role in sessions. Once a parent/caregiver is comfortable with participating, they will are able to learn how to guide their child in becoming a better communicator.

Therefore, I do not operate as the one who will ‘fix the problem’ — we’re working together, to the advantage of the child. When a parent or caregiver is part of a session, I’m able to join them in play with their child. (Admittedly, I provide toys/games/activities that will tap into an area of challenge for the child, but this also helps the family to know what they could play with at home!) I have the opportunity to observe how they interact together, and, through modelling, I can demonstrate new strategies that encourage communication development based on the child’s individual needs and provides on-the-spot coaching to give the parent or caregiver the chance to try it out, ask questions, then try it out again. We work together, as a team, to help their child to take steps forward. I’m not the one going home with the child.

When a parent knows that they know how to play/talk in a way that helps their child to do something new, they are much more likely to keep doing it at home. When parents are able to effectively carry new tools into their everyday lives, their child has endless opportunities to practice his/her new skill.

With practice comes confidence, and the opportunity to move forward. I’m not the one pedalling the bike, the parent is… I’m just the training wheels.

Parents will often comment, “I can’t believe I’ve been doing this wrong the whole time! I know that I spoke the same way to my other kids and they’re okay.”, and I’m quick to jump in and correct. Parents’ instincts in how they talk to their children are usually just fine! When a child has a communication delay/disorder, the rules change, they learn differently.

One of my roles, as a speech-language pathologist, is help parents learn to work with those differences and to teach/guide their child in a new way. The children that I work with are very young and are not able to change the way they learn to suit the adults in their world. We need to adjust to their level and work with them. This is true for a wide variety of challenges, including a difficult-to-engage toddler, a baby who has just had their cochlear implants activated, or a preschooler who is struggling with the motor-planning of speech sounds.  Regardless of the labels behind the disorders, the names of techniques or the therapist that you work with, parent/caregiver participation and follow-through are essential in helping their children reach their potential.

When parents are willing to actively take part in a therapy session, accept coaching, ask questions and practice at home, that’s when the magic happens. I don’t need that wand after all!

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