I remember when I met one of my preschool language students for the first time. He had just turned 3 and was transitioning to the schools from our birth to 3 program. I think a good word to describe him would be “energetic.”
Admittedly, I wasn’t prepared for the energy. There was a lot of, “Look at the book. Oh, you don’t want the book. Let’s try the playdoh. Oh, it doesn’t go in our mouths. Here are some farm animals! Oh, you’d rather play under the table.”
Where’s the preschool language quick guide of strategies when you need it?
Sometimes sessions are a flop. I tend to make excuses like “he’s too challenging” or “she just doesn’t respond well to me.” In all actuality, the problem is ME. What can I do differently? What are the research-based techniques that I know and can use right now?
This month on the blog we’re talking about all things preschool language. Today, I’m sharing basically a “quick guide” of research-based ideas that you can pull out and use with your littles tomorrow!
Strategy 1: Follow the Child’s Lead
Have you tried this? Following the child’s lead is when you plan and adjust your therapy sessions based on the child’s interests while facilitating interactions and supporting the child’s choice to transition between activities.
It capitalizes on the child’s focus of attention. Basically, you are letting the child initiate and explore and you are using that to your advantage. You can use what they are already engaging in more strategically.
Research: A study by Freeman & Kasari (2013) showed that the interactions in which parents attempt to direct and “teach” their child result in shorter play interactions. This lends support for the child-centered approach, in which we help parents follow their child’s lead or follow their lead as SLPs.
What are some ways that we can follow the child’s lead? Here are a few steps:
- Look – Observe what the child is interested in
- Wait – Wait for the child to initiate an interaction or get more involved in the activity. Sometimes it’s hard to wait or sit silently. We can try counting to 10, leaning in, or looking expectantly.
- Listen – Listen to what the child might be trying to tell you. If they initiate, listen to what they are saying. If they don’t, they are still communicating in a way. They might be saying wow this toy is so cool that I don’t want to look at anything else. Or eww, that slime feels sticky by the look on their face.
- Join – Lastly, join in and play! Respond to the child with enthusiasm. While interacting you can imitate them, comment, expand on their language, or use other speech strategies.
While you’re following the child’s lead, here are a few more tips to help you. We can model these in coaching sessions with parents or use them if we have students in our therapy rooms.
- Stay in moment
- Be flexible
- Imitate them
- Make small changes to play schema
- Be face to face
Though this strategy may not be what you are used to, go ahead and give it a try.
Strategy 2: Play-Based Therapy Sessions
Play isn’t just the reward in your therapy session. It’s the activity! Many SLPs use play activities to increase language in preschoolers because play is “speaking their language” in a way. Plus, it’s heavily backed by research.
Research: A study by Danger & Landreth (2005) found that child-centered group play therapy was shown to have a large practical significance in helping children improve both their expressive and receptive language skills.
Stagnitti et. al. (2012) found that the ‘Learn to Play’ program was associated with increases in children’s language and social skills over a 6-month period within a special school setting, indicating the Learn to Play program is an effective intervention for children with developmental disabilities. (source)
“When play-based therapy is performed correctly, it can help the child make associations with real-life events and create lasting memories needed to develop speech, language, and social skills” (Wegner, “The Importance of Play-Based Therapy”)
Play-based therapy is beneficial because it helps children:
- Increase attention towards objects and others
- Improve cognitive abilities
- Improve participation in therapy through fun activities
- Build positive adult-child interactions
- Socialize with peers
- Progress with their speech and language goals (source: handy handouts blog)
Here are some helpful tips when implementing play-based therapy in your sessions:
- Start with the therapy goal, not the toy. Think about what toys, items, or activities would work well for your goal, not the other way around. Try to steer the activity toward the goal in mind. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself playing aimlessly or confused on how to take data.
- Make your play activity story-like as much as possible. The more you veer away from true play, the less memorable the activities will be for the child. If you do little play schema with common routines, they are more likely to transfer it to real-life events.
- Avoid placing too many demands on the student. When we give commands like “say this or that,” it makes the activity more like work than play. It helps to give a 5-10 second wait time before prompting further.
Strategy 3: Build Vocabulary
If you are an SLP who works with preschoolers, you likely have a goal to support vocabulary. Or maybe you should have a goal. There is research that shows most preschool classrooms lack good quantity and quality of talk (Wilcox-Herzog & Kontos, 1998). Plus, children are spoken to less if they have lower verbal abilities (Kontos & Wilcox-Herzog, 1997)!
So, yeah. Vocabulary is definitely a real need. Let’s talk about a couple of research-based strategies for vocabulary building in preschoolers.
1. Emphasize core words
If your students have minimal verbal abilities or utilize an AAC device, a lot of times SLPs will start with core word vocabulary. According to research, 80% of what we say can be communicated with only 200 of the most basic words in our language (Baker & Hill, 2000).
When we emphasize these basic words along with fringe words that are relevant to the student, we provide the most opportunities for the student to get their message across.
Check out this post for some easy ways to target core words in your speech therapy sessions.
2. Provide more exposure to new words
Studies have also shown that students with language impairments may need more exposure to new words than typically developing students (Stahl and Nagy, 2006). You want to expose your students to words over and over again.
Some ways to do this are:
- Books with repetition
- Expanding words to a variety of contexts: play, videos, games, books
- Talking buddies
Talking buddies are trained adults (like a teacher, paraprofessional, parent, or SLP) in vocabulary intervention. This research study showed that conversation with a trained adult can be a useful strategy for improving the expressive vocabulary skills of children with low vocabulary (Ruston & Schwanenflugel, 2010).
The adults were trained to use recasts, expand and restate utterances, and ask open-ended questions to encourage conversation.
3. Explicit instruction
There is also evidence to suggest that repetition and exposure to vocabulary aren’t enough for preschoolers. They need explicit intervention to go “long” and “deep” with new vocabulary.
Shared reading is a great way to provide this. This study found success for students who were given pictures, clear child-friendly definitions, and encouragement to act out, use, and explain target words (Dickinson et al., 2019).
For more information on many research-based vocabulary strategies, subscribe to The Informed SLP!
Strategy 4: Involve parents
During the stay-at-home order, many SLPs were thrown into teletherapy, including me. One thing I learned from that was the importance of parent support and parent coaching.
Parent coaching ain’t easy, friend, but once you get the hang of it it’s totally doable. Plus, it’s proven to help with carryover and acquisition of skills.
A great resource for this approach is the Parent Coaching Handbook by Ruston and Sheldon. They say that a key principle to this approach is that SLPs believe that all families are capable and competent.
We want to teach parents the skills to promote those so-important communication skills in their everyday life, which in turn allows for faster progress in meeting preschool speech and language goals!
Here are a few tips for parent coaching:
- Use routines – Teach the parent ways to intervene with the child during their regular routines and activities.
- Encourage responsiveness – Encourage positive and meaningful interactions between the child and parents or caregivers. When parents become more responsive and sensitive to their children’s communication, the children’s communication skills improve.
- Establish good communication with the parent – Observe the parent interactions and give productive feedback. Get their input on what is working and what isn’t.
I’ll do another post for parent coaching really soon. It’s a HUGE topic.
Still not sure where to start? Here are a few of my favorite preschool language resources to get you started:
- Speech and Language Preschool Probes for Data Collection
- Core Word Sensory Bin Set 1
- Speech Therapy Take Home Packet for Preschool
- Speech Therapy Parent Handouts for the Year
What strategies do you use with your preschoolers?