Our "wait and see" approach to the speech and language development of young children in New Zealand is nothing short of alarming! What we are seeing is the average age of referral to see a Speech Therapist becoming later and later. Instead of a child being referred for an assessment at age three or four years when their difficulties have become apparent, they are coming to us at age five and six years – sometimes even later! If a child’s speech and language skills are delayed at age six, then they were almost most definitely delayed at age four and five! The concerning thing is that the parent has decided, or even worse been advised, to “wait and see!”
The “wait and see” approach achieves nothing - other than children lagging further and further behind. If a child starts school with poor speech and language skills, they struggle with peer relationships, they will struggle to acquire reading and writing skills, and they are more likely to have behavioural problems. They start to form an opinion of themselves as a poor learner and this starts a cycle of failure and underachievement – which may last a lifetime.
We have a dire situation in New Zealand. 1 in 10 children is identified as having speech, language, and communication difficulties. About one-third of new school entrants in New Zealand do not have the oral language and early literacy skills required to easily access the curriculum. And not only are we delaying the age to refer for support, but you also have to wait a long time in the public system to receive it! Just last week I listened to this being discussed on Radio NZ. Figures show the average wait time for Ministry of Education learning support jumped from 60 days at the middle of 2017 to 80 days by the end of last year, with especially long delays for under-five-year-olds and children with speech problems.
We have a perfect storm! Poor speech & language abilities are going to have a negative impact on our children’s future. It is going to affect their academic achievement, their social mobility, their employability, their civic engagement, and their wellbeing. Communication is at the core of who we are as individuals. It is crucial to our ability to learn and function in our everyday lives and relationships. Every interaction we have with others is defined by our ability to effectively communicate. This is why the advice to “wait and see” is so dangerous. The price of inaction will be incredibly high.
Our Government is trying! They have promised $217 million dollars to fund 600 new learning support teachers to work one-on-one with students with complex needs. The irony here is that our kids have to wait for this too. The scheme is not starting until 2020. My gut feeling is that the kids with speech, language, and communication needs unless this co-exists with other massively complex needs, will miss out. They will continue to wait!
Speech and language acquisition can be significantly accelerated with intervention. We know that the window of opportunity is greatest when a child is very young. Within the first five years of life, the brain has the most plasticity for learning new things and new information. Intervening early for children with speech and language needs makes a real difference to their future growth and development.
If a toddler is late acquiring their speech and language milestones, parents will never regret acting early. They will, however, regret acting too late!
Author - Anna Keno, Speech-Language Therapist, Giant Leaps Speech Therapy www.giantleaps.nz