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Conquer early milestones, master language for academic success

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Language and literacy go hand in hand. Address reading and speaking concerns early to prevent damage to a child’s academic career, say developmental experts at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Drs. Sherry Vinson and Adiana Spinks-Franklin, both assistant professors of paediatrics – developmental paediatrics at BCM, said concerned parents should enrol their infants in an early intervention program if they suspect their child is behind on core developmental milestones such as speech and language.

"Children should meet three key milestones by their first birthday," said Spinks-Franklin. "They should say one recognisable word, walk one step and follow a one-step command with gesture."

Behaviours to Watch

Vinson and Spinks-Franklin outlined alarming behavioural characteristics to watch for in children:

  • Not responsive to the parent’s command ("sit down").
  • Not self-initiating (saying "mama") and not following a one-step command given with a gesture (e.g., handing the parent what the child has in his/her hand when the parent holds out a hand and says a command "give that to me") at one year.
  • Not self-initiating conversation, saying approximately 50 words, and spontaneously putting two words together ("go home") plus following two simple commands put together without gesture ("touch your nose then clap your hands") at two years.
  • Following directions appropriately at one and two years, but not self-initiating the words.

There are significant challenges children with language and speech delays will have later in life if parents do not address the situation, they say. "Language allows them to become strong in so many important areas including academics, reading and social skills," said Spinks-Franklin. "Children with well-developed language skills are overall more productive and perform much better in school."

Reading, they say, can be a huge hurdle for these children but it is crucial for them to master. "If you cannot talk, then you cannot read," said Spinks-Franklin. "These children will have significant reading disorders that will damage their academic career if they are not appropriately addressed at an early age."

Early Intervention

Many states have resourceful, funded programs that evaluate a child’s strengths and weaknesses and devise a plan for enhancing their skills.

Vinson and Spinks-Franklin, who are also paediatricians at the Meyer Center for Developmental Pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital, refer parents to early childhood education programs available to children from birth to three years-old. The programs help children improve all developmental skills in a natural setting. Kids work with a variety of specialists including, speech pathologists, physical and occupational therapists and social workers and also provide psychological, educational and family support.

"The earlier the parents contact a program, the earlier the child can receive services," said Spinks-Franklin. She also added that children do not have to be referred by a doctor to qualify for the services. "Concerned parents should call to have their children evaluated by an educational program."

Clear Benefits

The benefits from evaluation programs are clear, say researchers who have followed the program for years. "Children with developmental delays who are enrolled in an evaluation program perform much better in school than those who are not," said Spinks-Franklin. "We continue to follow them through elementary school, and they continue to do well when compared to children with developmental delays who do not receive early intervention services."

Children involved in early intervention programs are more likely to live independently and graduate from high school, said Spinks-Franklin.

Risk Factors

A variety of factors may cause a child’s developmental delay, including genetics, prenatal environment (exposure to tobacco, alcohol or drugs) and premature birth (neurological development occurring outside the womb), they say.

The time it takes to overcome delays depends on the severity of the case. "If a child is challenged in several areas–language, speech, social and motor skills–it is going to take longer to develop language skills than for a child simply dealing with a speech delay," said Spinks-Franklin.

Parental Participation

Most significant is parental participation. "Most programs make house calls only once or twice a week," said Spinks-Franklin. "It is the parent’s duty to continue working with their children the rest of the time."

Spinks-Franklin said parents should actively label their child’s environment by pointing out objects and colours to help develop certain areas of the brain. Another vital exercise for parents is reading to your child, Spinks-Franklin said.

Children over the age of three can be placed in preschool programs before kindergarten and if they continue to need services after preschool, they should receive special education services from the school system. Private speech and language disabilities programs are also available, including a variety of programs from Texas Children’s.

"Early intervention is very beneficial for these children’s overall development and quality of life," said Spinks-Franklin. "The involvement and commitment from the parents makes this happen."

(Source: Baylor College of Medicine: August 2008)

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Dates

Posted On: 6 August, 2008
Modified On: 16 January, 2014

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