Serve and Return
Dr Conway says she thinks about how parents and children interact and talk to each other in those early crucial years of language development as a game of tennis.
“I think about this as serve and return interactions, and like tennis players, they influence each other’s communications and fine-tune their game as the toddler’s skills improve.
“Children learn that successful social interactions occur through turn taking.
“Mummy takes a turn whilst I listen and wait, then I take my turn whilst mummy listens and waits, then mummy has another turn by responding to what I said or did, etc.”
Dr Conway says that in infancy and toddlerhood, caregivers need to take responsibility for keeping the ‘conversation’ going.
“Caregivers can model appropriate turn taking by waiting for the child to finish their turn before taking their turn.
“They can reflect on what their child just said or did e.g. ‘Your toy cow just ate those apples – munch, munch, munch!’. They can ask questions ‘Why did your cow eat all those apples?’.
“They can expand on what the child said e.g. Child says ‘Mo’ so mum says “Moo says the cow’. They can pause when they have finished their turn and wait for the child to respond using sounds, words or gestures.”
Developmental Language Disorder
Dr Conway says many children who are slow to talk catch up, but some might go on to have Developmental Language Disorder (DLD).
Typically children are not diagnosed with DLD until at least four years of age because children’s language development can be very fluid during the early years.
Dr Conway says over half of children with low language at two years of age will have language within the normal range by four years, and children who had language in the normal range at two years of age can go on to have DLD.
“There is no one time between 0-3 years when a single assessment confidently predicts later language disorder. Therefore, the recommendation is to check progress regularly, not to rely on a single indicator or milestone, and be alert,” Dr Conway says.
“If parents are concerned about their children’s language skills they can talk to their nurse, GP or local speech pathologist. They can also check out Speech Pathology Australia’s website and talkingpoint.org.uk for information about language development.”
Dr Conway says referrals to a speech pathologist may be recommended for a range of reasons to do with language skills. For example, children who have expressive language difficulties after three years of age, poor understanding (receptive language abilities), regression in communication skills (e.g. loss of words or using sentences), difficulties with social communication (e.g. interacting with others), or if the child is concerned about their difficulties or is experiencing negative social consequences.
“Children with DLD have problems expressing themselves and/or understanding what others are saying,” Dr Conway says.
“Not surprisingly, they can have difficulties in the classroom, learning to read, and making friends.”
Through her work, Dr Conway is trying to identify child and parent interactive behaviours that can be trialled in programs for children with language difficulties. This is not because parent-child interactions cause language difficulties, but because elements of the interactions can be harnessed to help children’s language skills flourish.
“Many therapies for children with language difficulties already target parent-child interactions. The findings from our study will help inform these interventions,” she says.
“Working with families on these behaviours has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of these children.”