Toddler Language Development…Nothing Short of Amazing!

I sit in a hotel room four hours from home, anxiously awaiting Sam’s morning appointment with his liver specialist (The story of how we got to this point is not the point of this entry.).  The hotel room is so quiet, except for the sound of the noisy fan blowing from the heating/cooling unit, but I am not sleepy. So, I look through the “Notes” app on my phone to see just how far Sam’s language development has come in the past 6 months.

At his 2-1/2 year point, his speech sounded telegraphic and mixed up. He told my father “My popsicle green and tractor green,” as he compared the color of his drippy, sugary treat and my father’s John Deere tractor. He mis-sequenced  “kitchen,” saying “I go in chicken,” and “ketchup,” telling me “I want check-up” for his hot dog. He called a pancake a “cupcake,” with a knowing look that said “I know that’s not a cupcake, so why did my mouth just say that?” He used no “-‘s” to mark for possession, no “-ed” to mark for past tense, and did not use “gonna/will” to mark for future tense.

Today, just a mere six months later, he says the most incredible sentences. He admonishes me with specifics, saying “You didn’t put fast choo-choos on the big computer” when I neglected to get up from my work fast enough to pull up some Youtube videos about fast trains on our ancient Mac desktop. He informs me when I pick him up from pre-school “My teacher, Miss Sue, is not coming to my house” and “Miss Sue belongs to my new school.” He marks for tense by insisting “I didn’t do it!” (past), firmly stating “No, Dad, don’t talk to us because we are doing this puzzle!” (present), and warning me “I’m gonna color on my hand” (future).

As a speech-language pathologist, I am fully aware that some children will not do what my son is doing by the age of 36 months for various reasons. But, statistics generally show that only about 10% of any group of 100 children will have diagnosed speech and language difficulties which will require intervention. That means approximately 90% should be able to do, for the most part, what my son does by 36 months.  Sadly, this is not the case though, since children who are typically developing are developing skills in environments that are not language-rich.  And, not only are these children exposed to far fewer words than my child, but these children are often hearing mostly prohibitions like “No” and “Stop it,” whereas my child hears mostly affirmations such as “I like the way you’re sitting on your chair.”

The children who heard millions of words less than my child heard by 36 months and who heard mostly prohibitions versus affirmations will arrive at their first day of pre-school or kindergarten so far behind my child they could never hope to catch up. Most teachers aren’t trained to make up for what these children missed in the first three years of life, nor do they have the time to do so with all of the responsibilities they are given. Pre-school and kindergarten curricula are not designed to give kids what they missed in terms of language, emotional, social and sensory development in the first three years of life;  these curricula keep kids moving at a steady, if not rapid, clip from the point where they are already supposed to be and they assume the foundation was already put down for human abilities such as communication, trust and attachment to others, and multi-sensory processing in a learning environment.

I ask myself frequently “What would the American educational system look like if every typically developing child received the right language, emotional, social and sensory stimulation from birth to three years old?”  My answer is always the same:  fewer special education services, fewer resource services, fewer struggling students, fewer frustrated teachers, fewer student behavior problems, and, in the long haul, fewer drop-outs, juvenile delinquents and prison inmates.  I’m not saying everyone has to be or will be my son Sam, with amazing language development (How can he not be what he is as the child of a speech-language pathologist!?), but I am saying every child deserves the right to appropriate language, emotional, social and sensory input from birth to three so that he or she can enter school on equal footing with my child.

What do you think the world would look like if all children received the appropriate developmental input necessary for the school setting?  Do you think there is a solution to what is not really an education problem in our country but to what is really a social problem?

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