First, I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas and New year. I hope you have all managed to enjoy some time with your families. I have enjoyed myself thoroughly with my men, and I cannot believe how quickly the weeks have passed as we stare down the barrel of returning to school. I wanted to pen some thoughts about skills required for school from a Speech Pathologist perspective. Please remember this is just a narrow view of all the skills needed to function well within the school environment. I only speak to speech, language, and social skills related to the current Speech Pathology evidence. This information applies to children of all ages, from those commencing Kindy in two weeks to those entering and finishing high school.
It should be no surprise that regulation is number one on the list. For those who didn't get a chance to read my last blog, I spoke in detail about how attention and regulation are at the core of all human interaction and learning. Attention and regulation relate to our child's ability to keep calm and focused, ready to receive information. Children with neurodiversity, such as Attention Deficit and Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), have critical deficits in this area due to their brain wiring. School classrooms can be a challenging environment for these children. There is so much sensory information to take in:
The noisy kids
The bright-colored walls
The gardener walking past the window
The smell of all the lunch boxes
Then add the lack of tactile and proprioceptive input that many children need to regulate. Thankfully, our education system slowly recognizes that children need movement to learn, particularly early. As a side note, I am aware of a Ph.D. research project looking at the outcomes of completing complex maths equations in secondary school while doing gross motor movement, and the results are promising. Despite progress in this area, the implementation is teacher and student specific. You should speak with your child's teacher as soon as possible about their needs to help with attention and regulation. It is also a good idea to get your child's Occupational Therapist involved in this if you are working with one already. If not, it might be an excellent time to join a waiting list.
Speech sound skills are second on my list due to their interconnectedness with learning literacy. When a child reaches five, they should have a full complement of speech sounds. They should also be primarily intelligible to unfamiliar listeners. While this is the case for many children, children with Childhood Apraxia of Speech and other speech sound disorders may only be understandable to unfamiliar listeners once they are much older. In the past, the consensus was that the severity of the speech sound disorder was directly linked to the severity of learning literacy. New evidence suggests that children with even the slightest speech error, such as a lisp or saying /r/ as a /w/, are at risk of literacy difficulties. This is because we use speech sounds as the foundation for hearing and producing sounds for our language before attaching a symbol to represent that sound (letters). So a child that cannot say /r/ will read the following words with a /w/ - write as white, rail as whale rail, and ring as wing; due to the change in the pronunciation, the word meaning changes, affecting their overall understanding of what they have read. This is also present with spelling; for instance, if the child cannot say the /j/ sound and says /d/ instead when asked to write the word 'jug,' it will come out as 'dug.'
The ability to hear the different sounds within the word and understand that when you change a sound, the word's meaning changes is called phonology. Phonology is part of our language system, where we attach meaning to a cluster of sounds or words. Some children with weak phonology systems may not have speech sound errors in their everyday talking however may still stumble on producing multisyllabic words such as ambulance or learning new words such as anemone. Children who cannot repeat multisyllabic words or repeat new words taught to them immediately are showing weakness in Phonemic Awareness, which is the third important skill for literacy learning at school. Phonemic Awareness refers to a child's ability to hear sounds within words and manipulate these sounds to create new words. Phonemic awareness skills typically acquired before school indicate reading success, including counting syllables in the word, detecting rhyming words, and producing rhyming words. As the child progresses through school, they are taught to listen for how many sounds are in a word, what is the first and then the last sound within the word, and be able to take away sounds from a word to create a new word such as cupcake without cup is cake, and take without the /t/ is ache or changing the sounds, map turns to mip when we replace the /a/ with an /i/. To help our kids in this area, we can read stories with lots of rhyme, make up silly rhyming songs in the car and play word games such as I spy.
Third on my list, is oral language skills. Verbal language refers to your child's ability to create sentences and short oral stories to convey meaning without context (knowledge of the event prior or the use of visuals to support understanding). By the time a child reaches five, they are expected to speak in adult-like sentences with appropriate grammar. A child's vocabulary size and ability to tell a short oral story with a clear beginning, middle, and end are predictors of success at school. Most of the kids in my clinic will not be at this point at the beginning of school, which is ok. It is crucial, however, that we provide them with support in this area to help them as much as possible. Supports can be as simple as using visuals to help plan out their storytelling ahead of time and introduce new words that may be unfamiliar before they start learning about a new subject at school. We tend to see these children as quiet students who dislike contributing in class due to their fear of ridicule. As a result, we need to provide a safe and supportive environment in which students feel comfortable sharing their knowledge in small groups, one-on-one with a teacher or teacher aide, and with someone special at home. Pets are helpful in this instance, too, as they don't judge you if you get something wrong. So if your child has difficulties expressing themselves verbally and they have to present news, get them to practice beforehand at home with their furry love or a teddy.
Last but not least is social skills. When we think of social skills in kids, we often think of making and keeping friends, but it extends so much further. It includes if they can recognize the rules of the classroom, modify their behavior based on visual cues that they are getting from their teacher, and negotiate who gets to use the scissors first and where to sit on the floor. Visual routines and videos of expected behavior can be helpful for these kiddos for the day-to-day rules of the classroom. Our little neurodivergent friends again have difficulties in these skills due to their differing neurology. Everyone can find and keep friends, regardless of their neurology, and the rules don't ever change. We must remember that the rules we apply to our relationships and friendships are the same as our children's. We hang out with like-minded people who share a common interest and have similar values. We do not enjoy everyone's company. However, we tolerate those we do not particularly enjoy, and we must keep this in mind with our children. If, after the first few weeks of starting school, your child still needs to find someone to play with, speak to the teacher and ask if any children share common interests that they might be able to introduce them to. Get to know your child's friends and offer playdates so you can see your child's interactions and help support them if required.