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Simple Tips to Help a Child with a Speech Delay Communicate

By Fraser Speech-Language Pathologists • speech development, speech milestones, kids and speech, children with speech delay, kids with speech delay, speech delays, how to help a speech delay, tips for parents for a child's speech delay,kids and talking, children speech, children speech development, kid speech development, learning to talk, speech language therapy, speech therapy, language therapy • March 02, 2023

Hearing your child say their first words is an important milestone for both parent and child. According to the CDC, by age 2, most children can say “at least two words together, like ‘More milk.’” At 30 months, children typically have a vocabulary of about 50 words, which include a variety of people, objects, actions and connection words, like “Mom,” “Dad,” “blanky,” “go” and “uh oh.” By this same time, children also typically learn to change their volume and tone and use gestures. If your child isn’t hitting those milestones, you likely are concerned about your child’s development. You may be worried your child has a speech delay.

But having a speech delay doesn’t necessarily mean your child will never speak or learn to communicate with their family. Many organizations, like Fraser, have speech therapy for children. Fraser offers speech-language therapy to help children experiencing delays or difficulties with speaking, language, social communication, eating or swallowing.

Children with a speech delay might also need more help and support from their parents. Here are some tips to support children with a speech delay from Fraser speech-language pathologists.

There are ways around please and thank you

If a child has a speech delay or is still developing their language skills, pushing your child to add “please” and “thank you” to their vocabulary may not be helpful. For example, if your child is only using two-word phrases, adding please to those phrases might really limit the information they can communicate. So instead of saying, “Mommy eat,” or “go car” they might say, “car, please” or “Mommy please” and you would have to guess at the intended message. 

Children can still ask for things politely, without using please and thank you. Fraser Clinical Services Manager and Senior Speech-Language Pathologist Valerie Olheiser says children can learn how to use a calm tone of voice to request items politely. They can learn this by copying your behavior. Children generally learn to communicate by watching you, their siblings and other people. Children also learn language from modeling what they hear on TV, music, movies and videos. Modeling is an important tool for parents and caregivers to use throughout their child’s development.

Scripting is communication

Some children also learn language in chunks, known as scripts. The scripts can be a passage from a movie, a song, a TV show or part of a story that a child memorizes. This type of learning is common among children with autism. While a script may not seem like it makes sense in conversation, scripting is a learning strategy and a form of communication, says Olheiser. According to How to ABA,” I have a student who really, really loves summer camp. She sings the summer camp song all year long and it’s totally out of context. It’s not relevant for her to be cheering the summer camp song. But what she’s trying to say is ‘I’m really excited!’ Or she sees someone who works in a summer camp, and she starts to sing the summer camp song, meaning, ‘I’m happy to see you.’” While repeating dialogue from a favorite movie might appear to have no meaning, the reality is that your child is trying to communicate with you. What they’re saying might not be straightforward, but rather a way they feel, like the little girl singing the summer camp song. 

“Parents and caregivers are the people who know their children best and can teach others what their child’s scripts might mean,” says Olheiser. “This is invaluable to supporting child’s communication development.”

Encourage your child to add words

Another way to help a child build language is by encouraging them to add a few more words. For example, if your child says, “Go,” you could respond, “Mom and Sam go out.” Olheiser says that even if your child doesn’t repeat after you right away, they are still learning as you model this language. Just keep practicing with them, and they may learn to imitate you.

Model power words

If your child struggles with language, model power words and encourage them to use these words. Power words are words like stop, come here, no, help me, go away and mine. We refer to these words as power words because they give children some autonomy and allow them to draw boundaries. When a child learns to use power words, it can reduce their need to communicate through physical behavior like running away, grabbing things or hitting someone. When a child doesn’t have language, these behaviors are often how they express their frustration.

Give a child time to think

When children are learning language, it can take time to find the right words. As a parent, you can encourage communication by learning to wait for a response. Olheiser recommends you pause 10 full seconds for your child to respond. However, if your child struggles to respond, you shouldn’t withhold the item or action as punishment. This can cause your child to feel stressed or to shut down completely, if they don’t know the right word or are finding it difficult to speak at that moment.

Acknowledge all communication attempts

Not all communication is verbal. When a child points to a toy, they are asking for that toy. When you hold a finger up to your lips, you’re telling your child to be quiet. Even if your child isn’t using words, you should still acknowledge and respond when they communicate. The next time your child reaches for an apple, say, “I want an apple?” This shows you understand what they’re trying to say, while you’re also modeling language from their perspective for them to imitate. 

Children who are picking up language slower (late talkers) or who have a delay in language development might not reach speech milestones at the same time as other children. However, with a little extra help, these children can learn to communicate, whether through verbal communication or other supports like signs or a speech-generating device.