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Catching Language Problems Early

Alerted by a preschool teacher, a determined mother sought help for her daughter's speech problems - with positive results.

By Yolanda Canny

I'll never forget the day when my daughter's preschool teacher said, "I think something is wrong with Emily. When I asked where she was going, she broke out in tears and couldn't answer the question ... not because she didn't want to, but because she couldn't. That's not normal for a 4-year-old."

I immediately went on a guilt trip that sounded like: If I were home and didn't work, she wouldn't have the problem ...or maybe it's because her Spanish-speaking nanny isn't speaking enough English ... or maybe it's because her dad and I aren't talking to her enough. I was sure it was my fault - no matter what.

Gathering Information

My first step was to visit Emily's pediatrician and search Web sites for books and articles. I learned that speech delay was not associated with intelligence. In fact, several exceptionally brilliant people, Einstein among them, didn't speak until later in life. I learned some research suggests children who are analytical and have parents who are mathematicians or engineers, like Emily does, may be inclined to be speech delayed. At the end of all my searching, I discovered that it was just the way Emily was developing. I couldn't control it, so I needed to accept it and learn to help her.

Finding Interventions

My next step was to get a referral for private speech and language testing. Results revealed my daughter's hearing was just fine, but she had a significant speech and language disorder. We also learned that, since there was no medical condition causing the delay, our insurance didn't cover treatment.

Because it seemed important to intervene early, my husband and I agreed to pay out of pocket $50 to $90 per visit for 1-2 visits per week. We wanted to keep our daughter moving ahead in her receptive (understanding) and expressive (verbalizing) language skills.

When she was about 4½ years old, we had Emily tested in the public schools, hoping we might ease our financial burden. After the testing, we participated in an Individual Education Plan meeting with the speech therapist and school administrator. The good news was that Emily's total language score improved from the 14th to the 25th percentile; the bad news was that she didn't qualify for special education services because she didn't score at or below the 7th percentile.

Feeling Grateful

I must admit, I was unprepared for what happened at that IEP meeting. I was coming from a place of gratitude, hopeful and relieved that Emily had improved. School personnel were coming from a place of wondering whether I'd react negatively to learning Emily didn't qualify for services. I didn't understand why they seemed a bit defensive, but now I see they were prepared for possible disagreement over eligibility.

I'm extremely indebted to Emily's preschool teacher for her courage to tell a mom like me her beloved daughter might have a problem. I doubt I would have spotted it as early on my own.

Thanks to what I learned with Emily, I was able to spot similar problems with her younger sister when she was 3 years old. We immediately had her tested and discovered she was a year behind in her language comprehension and expression. She's now receiving private speech therapy, and we're grateful we were able to intervene earlier with her.

Seeing Success

Today Emily is 7 and in second grade. After 3 years of therapy, she has "graduated" and is now on her own. I'm very involved watching her do her homework, staying alert to screen for potential problems. Thankfully, she is a good reader, makes friends, and loves animals.

Sharing Strategies

Along the way, I've developed a few tips I hope will help other parents, as well:

  • If you suspect a problem, get help! Talk to your pediatrician or a speech-language pathologist immediately. Don't wait!
  • Avoid believing family members who say, "She's just shy," or "She'll grow out of it."
  • Learn to "model" language - which means repeating or rephrasing what your child says.
  • Don't answer questions or complete sentences for your child. Even if you're uncomfortable, don't do it. You can rephrase the question to give her more time to think about the answer.
  • Reduce pressure to communicate. Limit the number of questions you ask.
  • If your child stutters, slow your rate of speech and pause frequently. A slow speaking rate provides a good model for her.
  • When your child has something to say to you, give her your full attention.

Comments from readers

"HELP! I have been trying to get answers since my son was 1 as to why he wasn't starting to talk. He is 3.5 yrs now and we just saw a speech therapist who told me he has autisium/speech delay. He told me to get him enrolled into preschool and bring him back in 3 months. I have been looking online now for weeks and I feel overwhelmed and still don't know where or how to go about getting him in school. If there is anything anyone can tell me to help me I would really appreciate it. Editor's note: Perhaps these resources on our site can help. The Preschooler content area -; 10 signs of a great preschool -; How to find the best preschool for your child - In addition, you can search for preschools on our site. Go here: and enter your address or city, state and using the Grade Level drop-down menu, uncheck "All Grade Levels" and check only "Preschool." Best of luck to you! "
"I have a 4 year old son whom has been diagnosed with speech delays/language problem, and I'm worried that the school is keeping him at a certain level or more so I don't feel that they are pushing him to the fullest of his ability. I feel that he could be doing better with the time we've spent at this center because he IS able to learn. I feel the classes, which are blended, allows the children at times to regress and emulate the more problematic children or even become stagnant in their ability to grow, although equally, I see the reasoning in having all learning levels in one class. I will be seeking additional outside speech therapy because I want him to be ready when he starts kindergarten, but in short, this was very informative and encouraging to keep on pushing! Thanks!!!"
"I have been looking for a special needs preschool for my Grandson in Holland. He has been seeing a speech therapist and she has suggeted this as opposed to regular daycares. He is 3 yrs. old. If anyone has any info, I certainly would appreciate it if you emailed me."
"Was this daughter ever diagnosed with a disorder, did she start Kindergarten on time? I have a four and a half year old who is defenitley a year behind, He has been in speech since he was two. But we are wondering if he needs a didn't approach!"
" I have been concerned about my grandson for 2 yrs now. He has just turned 4 yrs. old. I still cannot understand what he says. His close family who are around him seem to think he is normal.Others who see him occasionaly also share my concerns. My fears are that he will lose out socially, or be a target for bullys when he starts public school. He should have had help 1 year ago. "
"Want some additional information, answers to questions, or support? Please consider joining and posting them at the 'Learning and Attention Difficulties' group found here at GS to receive to receive practical suggestions from parents who have faced similar challenges:"
"While visiting with my grandson, I realized I was unable to understand him much of the time. He is a 3 yr old, born in October. He has all of the facial movements, you can tell he is asking a question, but I have no Idea what he is asking. His sister will tell me what he is saying. I have tried to speak slow so he may try this also. I am very concerned for him. I have mentioned this to his mom, but she feels he will out grow this. His older sister never had this problem. "