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Help! Teachers can't understand my child's speech

Posted by Rebecca Siomra on July 29, 2015 12:07 AM

Rebecca Siomra

In my time working as a Speech-Language Pathologist, I’ve come to believe that our ability to effectively and efficiently communicate with anyone we meet can have a great impact on how we feel about ourselves and the people around us. Our ability to communicate can also have an impact on how others perceive us.

In my clinical work with toddlers, preschoolers and even school-aged children, parents often report to me that they aren’t able to accurately judge the clarity of their child’s speech because they are accustomed to the way their child speaks.  True enough!  This is why it is so important for parents, caregivers and teachers, whether it’s preschool or elementary school, to foster open lines of communication.  Teachers are valuable, often new, observers of the student and should be seen as an extension of a child’s support team.

Parents have reported to me that they become stressed when their child’s speech is judged by others to be difficult to understand; especially when it’s coming from their child’s teacher.  Parents know that, no matter what the child’s grade or level in school, success can be impacted by the effectiveness with which a student and teacher are able to communicate with one another or how they can be understood by each other. On the other hand, many teachers have reported that it’s not easy for them to share their concerns about a student’s speech and language skills with the student’s parents.  When parents let teachers know that they are open to communicating about their child’s development — either out of concern or praise — new opportunities for collaboration are created.  When both parties begin to trust that the other is working in the child’s best interest, the conversation can become less stressful and more productive for everyone.

Before I get to the heart of the matter, let’s have a quick refresher on some common speech and language challenges in children and how it affects their communication skills.  Even children who are very verbal may be extremely difficult to understand. Some children may do beautifully in formal speech testing, which usually consists of single words, while in conversation they may speak so quickly that their motor planning is unable to keep up with their thoughts. This can lead to decreased clarity of speech. Speech production relates to the sounds that we use when we talk and how we move from one sound to another to form words and combine those words together into phrases and sentences.   In addition to having some errors in their speech production, other children may have a very weak vocabulary.  Some children, when they want to share information and are unsure of which word to say next, may fill the gap with a nonsense word or even a mumble.  This certainly can have a negative impact on the clarity of their message. This is not necessarily due to speech production difficulties, but rather, language production.  Language production refers to which words we choose to use and the way we organize them into phrases, sentences and stories.

Tips to Facilitate Dialogue and Effective Collaboration

When a teacher or parent approaches one another to express concerns about a child’s speech and language, there are a few tips to consider that will facilitate open and collaborative dialogue which may lead to positive change and outcomes for the child.

1. We live in a society in which the majority of communication is through e-mail and other forms of technology, but live communication can feel more personal and a child’s communication skills is a very personal matter! Arranging a face-to-face meeting with the parent or concerned teacher, or at the very least, having a conversation over the phone is a wonderful way to communicate!
Be ready to ask the concerned parent or teacher questions about the child’s communication effectiveness.  Questions such as, “How much of what the child says does the teacher/parent understand?, Is this difficulty impacting his or her ability to have their needs met though the day?, Can the teacher effectively evaluate/assess the child? and, If not, can the parent suggest other ways for the teacher to get the information they need?”
Ask the teacher or parent how the child is coping at school or home when they have a difficult time conveying what they want to say.  Some children are very easy-going about repeating themselves and clarifying what they say, while others may become frustrated or may even withdraw.  If the child is struggling emotionally or socially, they may need a little extra support to cope as they continue to work on their speech or language production.
4. Share information about services available to the child. What services is the child receiving?
5. Explore the effective (and ineffective) strategies that are being used within the home and classroom that help the child develop clearer speech and spoken language. A communication book that can go back and forth between the parent and teacher is one way to effectively share information and continue a collaborative partnership.


Tips to Facilitate Improved Speech and Language Production 

Parents and teachers jointly share the responsibility of helping the child reach his/her highest spoken communication and academic potential. Here are a few tips that can help bring about positive changes in the clarity of child’s speech and language.

1. Even though the primary concern is the child’s level of speech clarity, arrange for a referral to a Speech-Language Pathologist for a speech-language assessment AND with an Audiologist for a hearing assessment. A hearing assessment provided by an Audiologist will let the parent and teacher know if the child has good hearing access (auditory access) to spoken language (primary speech signal). If auditory access to the primary speech signal is weak or inconsistent, speech and language development will be at risk. Even a minimal hearing loss (e.g. ear infections) can cause sound to be muffled to the child.  Within a noisy setting such as a classroom, in order to learn effectively, children need the primary speech signal (teacher’s voice) to be significantly louder than the background noise. Even if the child has already passed a hearing screening test, it is recommended that the hearing is screened annually. Hearing thresholds (levels) can change over time, and a child may hear differently today than they did a year ago.
Ask ‘yes/no’ or choice questions to ease communication stress.  When answers are limited in this way there is a greater chance that the response will be interpreted correctly and clearly understood.
Ask the child to ‘show’ you what he/she is talking about.  This can create a way to clarify a message that was not understood.  Some ideas are:  pointing to a picture, photo, person, or object or using gestures and facial expressions.
Have the child write the message. For those children who are old enough, they can write/type out a message, when the teacher needs clarification.
Get down to the child’s level and ask him/her to ‘say it again’.  It is important for children to know that what they are trying to say is important.  The parent or teacher may catch the message the second time, or the child may rephrase in a way that is easier to understand.  Keep in mind that not all children will tolerate this strategy, and even if they do, they may only tolerate it to varying degrees.  Some children will be comfortable repeating once, and become frustrated with future repetitions while others will happily try over and over again until their message is understood.

When parents, caregivers, teachers and other professionals in the community reach out to one another and work together as a team to uncover and find solutions for a child’s communication challenge, they may be opening up new doors for that child and their future.  Communicating effectively and easily, gives the opportunity to develop friendships, learn, or tell others about ‘that funny thing that happened today’.

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