SPEECH AND LANGUAGE THERAPY
The ability to communicate is at the centre of who we are. Whether we communicate through language or non-verbally, communication is how we form relationships with family, build friendships, express our needs and wants, and declare who we are as people. Speech and Language therapists at the Champion Centre work both directly with children and with parents to support each child’s developing communication ability. They are guided by the research evidence that successful communication depends on a child experiencing meaningful exchanges with meaningful people on meaningful topics over an extended period of time. SLTs also provide support for infants with feeding difficulties.
Understanding communication development
The importance of communication to the development of the whole person means that working on language (whether spoken, signed, or via a device) cannot be isolated from meaningful activities. Developing successful communication must include the most meaningful people in each child’s life, and it takes time over months and years. Using language is not like learning to roll a ball or ride a bike; something that can be practiced as an isolated skill. It is much more like learning to play a duet or dance a waltz: while the solo practice is useful, it does not become a duet or a dance until you do it with others.
Parents and other caregivers are a child’s greatest assets by being their most effective communication partners (not the speech-language therapists). Family members and friends are the ones who give children the incentive, the desire and the motivation to reach out and communicate. It is they who attach meaning to children’s efforts, affirm them for their attempts, and can invest in their development every minute of every day.
At the Champion Centre, we recognise various broad stages of language development supported by a wide range of research. In the baby programmes, the focus is on comprehension of language, on learning the give-and-take of meaningful interaction with another, learning to share the world with another, and beginning to communicate. To support this stage, Champion Centre therapists monitor the development of each child’s language carefully; suggest and demonstrate activities to increase the interactive value of the time parents spend with their child; and provide the opportunity for using signs and gestures as a way of expressing what cannot yet be said through speech (if spoken language is the goal). These activities are supported by the other therapists in the team as they, too, support communication and interaction in their work with each child.
By the time children enter the next stage of the programme, parents are skilled at communicating with their child, and have, as a result, cemented a healthy relationship with them. The therapists can, therefore, put the focus more directly on the language each child needs as they grow up, encouraging specific language for aspects of the world (spatial relationships, colours, numbers, etc.) and providing help designing and doing activities that will encourage this. Again, this is done against a background of careful monitoring of each child’s language development, and tailoring suggestions and demonstrations of activities to just above their actual level of development so as to stretch them without moving too fast.
Vygotsky has called this way of doing things as working within the ‘zone of proximal development’: helping a child do today what they will be able to do alone tomorrow. Get too far ahead of the child and it ceases to make sense; make it too easy, and they will not develop to the next stage. Other therapists are also part of the language programmes at this stage: the music specialist, the technology-supported learning specialist, the physiotherapist or occupational therapist and the early intervention teacher. All these team members coordinate to make the language programme coherent and a proper foundation for success.
Finally, in the transition to school programme, the focus is on the language needed to be successful in school. Here again, multiple therapists deliver the programme. The Speech and Language Therapist provides the team with information about the child’s stage and needs in language, suggests activities to therapists that will be appropriate, and works with parents to help them encourage their child's communication. Skills of story-telling, of providing “news” in school, of describing a picture, and of playing with language all form part of the programme. So, when children are singing they are developing language; when they are counting their way upstairs they are using language; when they are telling someone about their day, looking at books, or choosing items on a computer programme, they are developing language.
Underlying the entire Champion Centre language programme are the research supported beliefs that:
Communication serves relationships. Language is always in the service of relationships, and those relationships must come first and foremost when thinking about how to support a child's development.