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Advice for Helping Children with Speech and Language Disorders

As the new school year nears, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) is offering advice for parents of the more than 1 million U.S. children who receive school-based treatment for speech and language disorders to help their children perform and adjust to new virtual and modified in-person learning environments.

Virtual Settings

Below are some specific challenges that children with speech and language disorders may have in virtual settings—and tips for improving their success.

Challenge #1: Being Understood. For example, a child who has trouble with pronouncing certain sounds, or a child who stutters, may be harder to understand via remote connection.

How to Help: Parents can make sure their teacher knows what supports or strategies the child needs. These may include asking a child to repeat what they said, say it using different words, type it in the chat, draw it on a whiteboard, or use gestures if others don’t understand. Parents also can encourage the teacher and classmates to tell the child if they don’t understand them.

Challenge #2: Understanding. For example, a child with a language disorder or social communication disorder may miss certain cues from the teacher that normally occur in person and that aid in comprehension—such as pointing to portions of the text when reading.

How to Help: Make sure that the teacher knows what supports or strategies your child may need. These may include use of captioning, additional “wait time” to allow the child to process information, or rephrasing of messages if the child doesn’t seem to understand. Parents can encourage their child to speak up if they didn’t understand—and even develop a script for doing so (e.g., “I didn’t get it—say it again, please”).

Challenge #3: Distraction. Children with speech and language disorders may be more easily distracted—by other children on the screen, noises or activities occurring in their own home, or the learning platform/technology itself. 

How to Help: Consider the physical setup of the child’s work area, such as seating comfort, screen glare, and lighting. Try to find a quiet spot, accounting for noise from appliances (e.g., dishwasher, washer/dryer); from other people in the house; or from outside (e.g., from open windows). Eliminate technology-based distractions by closing other applications, turning off alerts, and covering distracting parts of the screen (e.g., their own image or those of particular classmates) with sticky notes.

Challenge #4: Social Isolation/Limited Social Practice. Children with language disorders and social communication disorders generally require lots of interaction with peers to improve social skills.

How to Help: Ask the teacher if it’s possible to use breakout rooms with smaller groups for some lessons or set up after-school virtual activities. Organize phone calls and virtual play dates. Use social stories (short stories that illustrate a particular situation that may be challenging for children) to help explain the need for separation.

Challenge #5: Screen Fatigue. This is an issue for all children, but for those with speech and language disorders who put more effort into communication under normal circumstances, the extra energy it takes to communicate virtually can make them especially susceptible to screen fatigue. 

How to Help: Make room in the daily schedule for “ramp-up time” if a child needs additional time to get ready to learn or “cool-down time” to transition out of learning. Using a visual schedule to show the times for various tasks—and to highlight upcoming fun activities or breaks—can help. Also, provide lots of movement opportunities: pair review of educational content with physical activity (e.g., practice times tables during a walk around the block), and alternate educational time with physical time, when possible.

Challenge #6: Participation in Asynchronous Activities. Students may struggle to stay motivated or complete activities that are expected to occur outside of live class time, such as watching pre-recorded videos.

How to Help: Consider the timing of meals, sleep, medication, and sibling schedules to find the best time to complete these tasks.

Challenge #7: Role of Parent as Facilitator/Educator. A pain point for many families, parents of children with speech and language disorders have additional challenges as they try to help their child with school while also meeting their unique needs.

How to Help: Communicate with the teacher and school speech-language pathologist about challenges. Parents can even take a video of some challenges in action so professionals can offer feedback. Use a visual schedule to show “practice with mom” or “homework with dad” time. Consider cooperative groups or pods to share responsibilities with other families if you feel it’s safe (share your child’s communication needs with other parents or helpers).

In-Person Settings

The physical school environment will look very different, and change can be especially hard for children with speech and language disorders.

Challenge #1: Changes From Familiar Routines. New restrictions on where children can go in the building, where they eat lunch, where they have recess, and who they work and share materials with will require them to “un-learn” much of what they know. Children may also be challenged by new seating and classroom arrangements, and restricted interactions (e.g., no hugs, high fives, or fist bumps).

How to Help: Help a child be prepared for these changes—use social stories, visual schedules, and other visual supports to help set expectations. Have them practice telling the teacher if they’re not feeling well or need to use the bathroom.

Challenge #2: Mask/Face Covering Use by Students. Students may be bothered by masks or find them uncomfortable. They also won’t be able to see facial expressions and other visual cues that aid in communication with their peers when solid face coverings are used.

How to Help: Use social stories on wearing a mask, decorate and personalize the child’s mask, have them practice wearing the mask at home for longer periods of time to increase tolerance, and help them identify a “mask model”—someone the child looks up to who wears a mask. Practice using and interpreting facial expressions using the eyes and upper part of the face at home with the child.

Challenge #3: Mask Use by Teachers/School Staff. Limited physical views of facial expressions makes understanding the teacher’s meaning, intent, and emotion more difficult. It also may be harder to recognize familiar people.

How to Help: Review pictures of friends, teachers, and staff without masks—and talk about how a child can identify those people (e.g., focus their attention to the person’s eyes, hair, and other distinguishing features).

Challenge #4: Following infection control routines. The need for frequent handwashing or use of hand sanitizer may be difficult to understand for some children.

How to Help: Social stories, visual schedules, sharing videos from familiar favorites (e.g., Sesame Street), or timing 30 seconds of handwashing to favorite songs can all help. Some children may be taking part in hybrid scenarios this fall, which can pose the challenges presented by both virtual and in-person settings—as well as the added challenge of a constantly varying routine. In such cases, visual schedules, checklists, and large color-coded wall calendars are helpful for children with speech and language disorders.

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