As a pediatric speech-language pathologist I’ve seen parents become frustrated with their child’s slow progress with language development. There is one secret reason why this could be happening. I’m here to reveal the one powerful reason, what to look for, and how to address it so progress can be made.
YOUR CHILD’S LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
As a pediatric speech-language pathologist I’m constantly working with families to educate them on the sensory system and it’s major role in language development. I’m in early intervention which means I work with kids birth-five and this is the most critical time for them as far as development.
Children’s brains are like sponges during this early period. From the time they are born they are learning their world around them. They are learning how, when, and why to communicate with others around them. They learn very quickly when they do something they receive something in return.
Remember when your little baby started crying and then you figured out which cries meant different things like hungry, tired, or wet? That is one of their very first communication skills in language development. It actually still blows my mind just how amazing our brains are! I know! I’m such a nerd! But it’s really simply amazing.
WHAT’S TYPICAL LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
All babies develop language skills but some may develop them sooner than other babies. There is a range of what’s considered typical development when it comes to speech and language development. Babies can learn different skills at different times but they should all follow a pattern to get to the same place.
To learn about typical language development see my latest post right HERE. You will find typical language development skills along with red flags for communication delays. I’ll guide you on exactly what to do if you notice these red flags.
FOR NOW HERE ARE SOME BASIC MILESTONES FOR TYPICAL LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
Expressive languages skills are listed from ages 1-3 below.
- They are using more words than gestures to communicate
- Using a variety of age appropriate sounds in words /p,n,m,t,d,k,g,w,h/
- By age two they are starting to put two word phrases together ex: “more milk” “no mommy” “mommy bath”. Also starting to put three words and more together around 2.5 years old
- They have a variety of nouns (milk, ball, bubble, bird, etc) , verbs (run, drink, go, eat), prepositions (on,in,off) and pronouns (I, my, mine, me) in their vocabulary
- They are able to use words for functions like labeling, commenting, answering simple questions, asking simple questions “whats that”, “who’s that” “where ball”
- Familiar people like family and close friends can understand your child when they talk. Unfamiliar people still may not be able to understand some of what they are saying.
Receptive languages skills are listed from ages 1-3 below.
- Points to simple pictures in books
- Can listen and enjoy simple books, songs, nursery rhymes
- Follows simple 1 step directions “roll ball”, “give me”, “come here”
- Responds to simple questions such as “where’s ball” (child will likely point to ball or go get it. they will most likely not answer with a word yet if closer to age 1)
- Understands new words daily
- Can answer simple questions with a simple word
- Follows two step directions “get the ball and give to me”
- Understands opposites like go/stop, fast/slow, in/out, on/off
SO WHAT’S THE ONE REASON YOUR CHILD IS MAKING SLOW PROGRESS WITH LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
Do you have a child that has a hard time staying seated or attending to the play task?
Do you have a child that seems really “rough” and has even gotten in trouble at school for pushing other kids but you really don’t think they were being “mean”?
Do you have a child that has a difficult time staying focused to sing along to favorite nursery rhymes or seems “too busy” to learn the task they are being asked to perform?
Do you have a child that can do one piece of a puzzle then they need to get up and move move move?
Do you find that when your child can get a puzzle piece then bear crawl to put in it they actually say more words or can focus for longer?
If so, you are on track to uncovering the one reason that is impacting your child’s language development.
SENSORY SYSTEM AND IT’S IMPACT ON LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
The one reason that could be contributing to slow progress with your child’s language development is the sensory system. I met with my friend and pediatric occupational therapist, Lindsay Kale from Happy Hearts Therapy, to discuss the sensory system in detail for this post. Lindsay specializes in sensory processing and is an amazing resource.
We sat down for almost an hour and talked everything sensory. Today, I’m going to break down how it impacts language and what to do to help your child with their language development. Here is a little from our interview.
Q. What is the sensory system?
A. The sensory system is composed of 8 different sensory systems. It allows our body and brain to send and receive messages to/from each other. For example when a child is constantly rough housing or wanting to crash into pillows that is their body’s way of saying it needs something more to be able to focus on the task at hand.
- Visual system (seeing)
- Auditory Processing (hearing)
- Tactile Processing (touch)
- Proprioceptive system (feeling/sensations from muscles and joints of the body)
- Vestibular system (feeling of head movement in space)
- Olfactory system (Smell)
- Gustatory system (Taste)
- Interoception (regulating internal cues like hunger and thirst)
As you can see from above the sensory system has a deep and internal impact on how our body functions as a whole. It plays a major role in how your child learns to communicate with themselves, you, and the outside world.
EXAMPLES OF HOW THE SENSORY SYSTEM IMPACTS YOUR CHILD’S LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
I thought it would be helpful to give you some examples of how the sensory system works and how it impacts your child’s ability to learn.
When your child is very turned off by smells or wants their hands cleaned immediately after touching something this is their brain saying “I don’t like the way that feels”. If feels yucky on their hands it will feel yucky in their mouth.
What if your child is learning about colors and you break out some fun finger paint that they immediately cover their nose to and run off. The smell is so strong to them that it impacts their ability to play with the paint therefore they lost out on an activity that could help them learn colors. Of course there are other ways to learn colors but this is an example of how the sensory system can impact their ability to learn.
Most if not all children with speech and language delays rely on other types of cues to learn language rather than your traditional learning method of hearing and seeing.
We typically learn language skills through hearing and seeing but for some kids that have a difficult time with speech and language development they need more tactile input to their mouth to help their brain say “close your lips for the sound /m/” for example.
When I see that a child is having a difficult time producing a sound or word I often use another visual cue for that sound so the child can have another way to see how it’s formed. For example, I may place a mirror in front of them so they have visual feedback for producing the sound.
Another way I may take my pointer and thumb and press my lips together when making the /m/ sound.
Then I may take my fingers and press their lips together (if they are okay with that) and that is their tactile input that allows them to actually feel how their lips move to make the sound.
When kids are having a difficult time staying seated for a puzzle that is my sign that their sensory system is saying “it’s too hard for me to focus on what you want me to do right now. My body and brain are telling me to get up and move and then I may be able to focus better”.
If this happens I may place the puzzle at one end of the room and take the puzzle pieces with me to another part of the room. We take a puzzle piece and we bear crawl to the puzzle to place it in or maybe I pull them on a blanket while singing the animal song to the puzzle.
Another activity I may do is have them hop (or help them hop) to the puzzle piece. The goal would be for them to finish part or all of the puzzle first. Then we can start to work on naming animals and sounds.
If I have a toddler that seems to be “all over the place” and not able to make any sounds or is having a hard time looking at me during songs that is a sign I need to switch things up a bit so they can focus. An example of what I’d do is I may sit them on my knees and bounce them while singing. I may lay them on a blanket and pull them then stop, pause for a minute, then give them a cue to produce the sound I’m waiting on.
Maybe I need to back up and work on getting them just to look at me to establish joint attention. I may sing their favorite song and when they look away I will pause. Once they look back at me I will start singing again. This is giving them feedback that when they look at me (joint attention) they get the fun activity.
Looking at me is their part in the communication exchange. Once they are consistently looking at me and staying engaged I may add in another demand such as making a gesture then a sound.
UNDERSTANDING OUR CHILDREN
It’s when we watch our children closely that we start to notice the reason why they may not be able to do what is asked of them. When we start to understand what’s going on inside their body we are better equipped to help them learn.
Think about this. Have you ever been so busy at work that you forgot to eat lunch then you have a meeting and all you can think about is how hungry you are or what or where you are going to eat. By the end of the meeting you realize you really haven’t heard anything that was discussed.
What about having a tag in your shirt that drives you absolutely crazy? You just can’t wait to cut it out or you are messing with it all day. Some kid’s bodies constantly feel like this. They constantly feel uncomfortable and don’t have a way to tell us so they demonstrate behaviors to help give themselves a feeling that allows them to function.
This plays a major role in their language development. They can’t focus on what you want them to at that moment. They have a difficult time focusing on what they need to because they are trying so hard just to get the foundation skills in place.
This is how a child feels when their sensory system is not balanced. They can’t focus on something when their brain and body are telling them to do something else.
THE TRICKY THING ABOUT THE SENSORY SYSTEM
The tricky thing about the sensory system is that what may work for one child may not work for another child. Also, one day your child might need more proprioceptive input (things like deep pressure or bear hugs) and the next day they might need something different.
Finding appropriate techniques that are suited for your child’s needs is best practice. These needs may change and parents and therapists must be able to adapt to this.
If you have concerns that your child’s sensory system is not balanced you should seek a local occupational therapist for a thorough evaluation. You want to find a therapist that has a good amount of experience and training in sensory processing.
This is super important because your therapist will need to determine which systems are impacted and the best ways to treat your child. Remembering that each child is unique and requires individualized treatment for best success.
RED FLAGS YOUR CHILD IS DEMONSTRATING SENSORY PROCESSING DIFFICULTY/DISORDERS
- Difficulty maintaining joint attention during face to face communication activities
- Can’t be messy
- Difficulty with teeth brushing, baths, having hair brushed, or nail trimmed (could get to the point where child becomes extremely upset over these basic tasks)
- Constantly moving
- Spins or swings excessively or the opposite and becomes quite fearful of this
- Loves to be upside down
- Appears to constantly be rough housing (may hit other kids, bump into things)
- Difficulty getting dressed (hates seams in socks, tags in clothes, difficulty wearing certain textures such as jeans)
- Picky Eater (prefers only crunchy foods or soft foods, prefers higher flavor foods or only bland foods, won’t eat certain temperatures of foods like really cold foods, omits categories of foods, difficulty with chewing meats)
- May over stuff mouth with food, store food in cheeks
- Difficulty attending to structured tasks
- Seems floppy, may lean on furniture or slouch over
- May seem like it takes a lot for them to get started/active (appears kinda sad, tired, or not interested)
- Difficulty transitioning from one activity to another (may become overly upset when having to end one activity or leave the park)
- Strongly dislikes loud sounds, music, or environments or even lights OR may actually constantly lean in closer to these sounds/lights
- Looks very closely at objects, toys or may even lay down to look at objects
- Little understanding of personal space
- Difficulty with reading nonverbal cues
WHAT TO DO IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR CHILD IS HAVING DIFFICULTY WITH SENSORY PROCESSING
I hope this gives you a better idea of just how complex our body and brain work together. The link between sensory processing and language development is critical and we need the sensory system to be balanced for successful learning to happen.
Take a close look at your child. If you notice they are having difficulty with receiving sensory input take a minute to think about how you can best accommodate them to make their experience a better one. For example, if they can’t stand being messy try to have a towel/wash rag right by them during mealtimes so they can wipe their hands off.
You can also have a bowl of water to rinse their hands while they are playing with finger paint or something messy.
If your child is having a difficult time staying focused try adding in movement such as hopping or maybe pulling them on a blanket while singing. Each child is different so it’s all about finding what’s right for their little body.
You can contact your local pediatrician and recommend an OT evaluation. Make sure to ask for an OT provider with experience and training in sensory processing. Lindsay recommends speaking to an OT directly to share your concerns with and confirm a sensory profile can be completed upon evaluation to determine if therapy is warranted.
If this post was helpful please share with other parents. I believe there is huge need for parents to understand the why behind their child’s behaviors and learning so we can help our children develop to their full potential.
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