Not moving forward? Try taking a step back!
“I attended your course in St. Louis… I used the strategies you taught the very next week and the sessions went very well. I just needed to drop back some levels! Thank you!” Ellen, SLP
This is the kind of email I receive almost every day at teachmetotalk.com. In this post I want to share with you why taking a step back can be the very thing you need to do in order to help a young child learn something new.
Believe me, I know firsthand how frustrating it is when a late talker you’re working with does not seem to be making any progress. After several weeks (or months!) of getting nowhere despite your best efforts, you probably begin to question why what you’re doing isn’t working. Sometimes, instead of questioning what we can do differently, human nature seems to dictate that we double-down and try even harder without changing much of anything. Or worse, we may be tempted to give up, thinking, “This is never going to work.”
Neither one of those approaches is successful. There is one simple lesson I’ve learned over and over again in my practice as a pediatric speech-language pathologist and, if I’m being honest, even in my role as a mother:
When a child is not making progress, back up!
We have to constantly remind ourselves when we’re in this situation that the real reason a very young child isn’t making any gains is because the goal we’re trying to get him to reach is too difficult. What we’ve chosen to focus on is somewhere beyond where a child is currently capable of functioning.
In other words, the goal is too hard.
No more analysis is needed. I firmly believe that if a child could do what we’re working on, he would.
When you find yourself in this predicament, we’ve already established that continuing to do what you’ve been doing won’t likely produce different results. And we’ve already said that quitting isn’t an option, which leads us to our default plan: back up!
What do I mean by “back up?”
Look at the skills that come just before the one that’s eluding the child, figure out what’s missing, and begin there.
If this doesn’t make much sense to you, let me stop and share an analogy I use with the families of children I see in my practice. When a parent seems confused that what I’m working on doesn’t seem to be the end goal, I explain it this way:
Learning to communicate is a lot like learning higher level math. You’d never expect a teenager to understand algebra unless she knew how to multiply and divide. Teachers would not begin to teach long division until a child had memorized their multiplication tables. Kids aren’t ready for multiplication until they’ve had lots of practice learning to add and subtract. We wouldn’t dare think of teaching a child addition and subtraction unless they could write numbers. Children don’t learn to write numbers until they can identify numbers and have learned to count.
It’s a process.
Language development is a process too, but because it happens quickly and often without much effort in toddlers and young children with typically developing skills, we often forget just how sequential the process of learning to talk really is. We become anxious to jump to the end goal (“I just want him to talk!”) rather than realizing all of the things that must come first. Our intentions and our goals can become too big and unrealistic, particularly when a young child is obviously struggling.
To learn how to “back up,” we begin with what’s not happening and then walk it back (by looking at the continuum of developmental milestones in reverse) to the point where the first breakdown occurs. Then we go back a step, because that’s the starting point where the child is mostly likely to be successful.
Let’s look at a common example. Let’s say that a mom expresses her desire for her child to be able to carry on a conversation with her but that’s not happening yet, as in, it’s not even close. How can we apply the “back up” principle in this example? Start with what your goal is and walk it back.
If you want a child to participate in conversations with you, start by analyzing what comes before adult-like conversation. Examples of what you would ask yourself are…
Can the child generate a full sentence on her own? Does she understand questions well enough to respond to you, or are her answers pretty limited? Does she already talk using a wide variety of shorter phrases? Is her vocabulary fairly large with enough “words in the bank” to pull from to generate longer sentences? When she attempts to speak in sentences, is she missing the “little words” only, or does she seem to not know what she wants to say? Does she understand the concept of turn-taking, meaning you do something and then I do something? Is her attention span long enough for her to stay with you beyond a sentence or two?
Can you see how all of those smaller steps lead to participating in the overall, “big picture” goal, which was conversation?
Can you also see how a child who is not doing the things I mentioned is not really ready for such a “big” goal?
This seems like common sense, something we should all understand how to do. However, many times when we’re working on something as important as treating a problem so big it’s warranted its own word – a specific diagnosis – we seem to forget that simple is usually better.
I see this happen over and over in therapy and in my experience, it’s the main reason toddlers don’t make more consistent progress once therapy begins. Many times the problem isn’t that the therapy isn’t good or that parents aren’t committed or that anything else is going on. The problem is that we’ve jumped too far ahead of where a child is functioning developmentally and the chasm is too wide. We’re trying to cover too much ground at once. The child needs to master several preliminary goals first.
While the example I gave you before about speaking in conversations is pretty broad, you can take this same principle and apply it to every goal we target with toddlers who are having difficulty with speech-language development (and really every other skill too!)
The key is breaking down large goals (such as “I want him to tell me what he wants” or “I want him to understand what people say to him”) into smaller, achievable steps that should lead up to the overall skill.
As a parent, unless you’re an expert in child language development, this may be well beyond your ability to do alone. AND THAT’S OKAY! Just because you’re a mom or dad, you’re not supposed to be an expert in everything! Get yourself some help!
Hopefully, your child is already in therapy and you have a great resource readily available to you – your child’s therapist. Ask him or her about the concept of “backing up.” Say something like: “I think my excitement (or anxiety, or determination, or paralyzing fear – Whatever your emotion is, name it!) for the end result has clouded my judgment and I’m not realizing all of the little things that must come first before my child will be able to _____.”
In a perfect world, your child’s therapist will grab you in sheer relief and say, “That’s what I’m here for! I can help you with that! Here’s what we should do!” If that doesn’t happen, you may have caught the therapist a little off guard. Give them a little time to catch up to your new revelation and have the conversation again in a week or two when they have had some time to process what you’ve said and make adjustments.
If your late talker isn’t in speech therapy and you’re going it alone, for whatever reason, do your best to logically think through developmental milestones. Then determine what a realistic goal would be so that you can direct your efforts toward working on what’s more likely to be successful. My advice is to get yourself some credible resources…and use them!
An article like this can’t possibly provide the kind of information you need in order to do this. Every child, with his or her own set of unique strengths and weaknesses, will be a little different. There’s no way that a single post, or an entire website about language development (even this one with hundreds of articles, podcasts, and videos!) or entire books will answer every one of your questions about your own child. The only way that a professional can truly determine what interventions are right for your child and your situation is to meet with your child. Still, educating yourself with books, DVDs, podcasts, and website posts is better than doing nothing. They give you a good place to start.
In closing, finding the correct starting point for working with a very young child is sometimes a moving target, so don’t get discouraged. You will have to tweak and adjust until you find just the right step in the process that works for your child, but it is there waiting for you. I’ve listed some ideas for you at the bottom of this post to point you in the right direction…so you can back up!
Until next time –
Resources for helping you figure out how to back up…
“I’m teaching my toddler to talk, but I know I need more direct guidance. I want to back up, but I’m not sure how.” Get my book Building Verbal Imitation Skills in Toddlers to walk you through the steps for helping a child learn to imitate new words.
“I’ve tried to teach my child to say words, but we haven’t had much luck.” Check out my DVD Teach Me To Talk so you can SEE real life clips of successful ways to teach words.
“I’ve been focused on helping my child learn to say words, but now I realize that he may not understand what many words mean. He doesn’t follow my directions very well.” Try Teach Me To Listen and Obey 1 & 2 so you can learn about receptive language and what you can do to help your child begin to make connections and follow verbal commands.
If you’re new to early intervention or haven’t had the success you’d like, I have fantastic resources that you can use TODAY to help you achieve the results you want.
For help with first steps establishing interaction and engagement with toddlers with autism or red flags for ASD – Teach Me To Play WITH You
For a comprehensive list of every receptive and expressive milestone with strategies and ideas for how to target each goal – Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual
For step-by-step instructions for helping a toddler become verbal – Building Verbal Imitation Skills in Toddlers
For full-length courses designed especially for SLPs and other therapists who work with toddlers and preschoolers, read this post for more info.