How to Do Speech Therapy at Home

speech therapy

iStockphoto / Mordolff

Like any other skill acquired in childhood, learning how to communicate clearly—both in terms of how you speak and the words you choose—is one that develops over the course of many months and years. Some kids begin babbling away early in toddlerhood while others remain the strong and silent type until they’re more comfortable with speech patterns.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), most children begin talking between 1 and 2 years of age. By age 2, most kids have a vast foundation of words to work with (think “ball,” “dog,” “Mama” or “Dada,” “cup,” “eat”) and are often putting words together into two-word questions and sentences.

If your child doesn’t seem to be falling within the range of normal for speech, it may not be a sign of a speech or language delay, but it also may be appropriate to begin engaging in some simple speech exercises with your child at home.

At-home speech therapy can be especially helpful for kids who aren’t easily frustrated and who have only mild delays or articulation errors, said Massachusetts-based pediatric speech therapist Alyssa Gusenoff. More serious problems, like speech regressions, should be brought up with a licensed speech therapist.

Here is a guide to performing basic speech therapy at home with your child, from first steps all the way through seeking outside help.

Assess Your Options 

There’s no reason to go it alone when it comes to speech therapy if there are resources in your community that can assist you. First, you should consult with your child’s pediatrician if you feel that your child has a speech delay or articulation issue. Their pediatrician can share developmental milestones for speech and let you know if your child is actually struggling.

“It’s important to know what’s developmentally appropriate for speech and what’s simply parent-preferred,” Gusenoff said. “Parents without a pediatric background may not realize that 4 year olds don’t need the 'r' sound yet.”

Gusenoff said that many communities offer early intervention services for children who aren’t yet school-aged. If your child is already enrolled in school, your district may employ a speech therapist who can help you, too. Don’t be shy—ask around to see what’s available. Many services are provided free of charge for town residents.

Assess Your Child

If you’ve decided to try at-home speech therapy (either in lieu of professional services or, perhaps, while you wait for a therapist to become available), what works for your child will depend on several things.

Age

Younger children will have a hard time focusing and concentrating on anything you call “therapy.” You can try to keep things fun and light, but a child too little to understand he’s making speech errors may not be receptive to correcting them. An older child can be more motivated to improve their speech because it means they will be better understood by peers and caregivers.

Temperament

Again, kids who are not easily frustrated are more likely to work on speech with a parent. Kids with a low frustration tolerance may view therapy as a negative experience.

Type of Speech Involvement Needed

There will be different approaches to therapy if your child has a speech delay (they have far fewer words than they should at their age) versus an articulation problem (they make a “t” sound instead of a hard “c” sound). 

Co-Existing Conditions

If your child is simply behind in this one area, it may be easier for you to slowly catch them up over time at home. If a speech issue occurs along with another developmental condition, like autism, you may want to seek professional help.

Experiment with At-Home Methods

Once you’re ready to forge ahead, you can try a variety of approaches to helping your child improve their speech. Here are some of Gusenoff’s favorite strategies.

Stop Anticipating Your Child’s Needs

It’s tempting, we know, to jump for what your child wants whenever they simply point at it—but doing so doesn’t encourage them to use their words. Give them a chance to ask for the pretzels, Gusenoff said, rather than grabbing them as soon as your child points to the cabinet.

Minimize Pacifier Usage

If your older toddler or preschooler is still using a pacifier, it can be very hard to break the habit, but it’s also very hard to talk with a pacifier in your mouth, so continuing to use one when speech is developing can interrupt the process.

Offer Choices

Instead of saying, “What would you like to drink?” ask your child “Would you like milk or juice?” A child struggling to build vocabulary will benefit from hearing the options and being able to choose one, rather than being expected to pull the correct word out of thin air. 

Increase Visibility

“When you say the name of an object, hold the object up towards your mouth your child sees your mouth move,” Gusenoff recommended. This creates an immediate visual connection between the object and the way the word for that object is formed in the mouth.

Play Games

Take turns repeating words to each other (example: “I’ll say ‘apple’ and then you say ‘apple.’ Ready? ‘Apple.’ Your turn!”). Peek-a-boo games also encourage speech by keeping a child’s attention, as do hiding games. Gusenoff said hiding objects around the house, like hiding small objects inside playdough, and keeping objects reserved inside containers can all encourage kids to ask questions, make exclamations, and request assistance.

Prompt and Withhold (Within Reason)

If your child is struggling because they simply haven’t had a lot of opportunities to practice various types of speech, you’ll have to learn to get comfortable making them feel mildly uncomfortable sometimes. Don’t push your child to the brink of tears, but it’s okay to pause or hang back to see if your child can eventually solve their own problem when they need something.

For example, Gusenoff said you can help your child put on one shoe—then get up and walk away. Does your child call after you to get your attention? If so, ask him what he needs (you know the answer, but pretend like you don’t!). The goal here is to encourage your child to communicate for himself, rather than always relying on you to do all the talking.

Repetition

Most children learn best when things are repeated over and over (and over!) again, and that’s often true for speech as well. When your child says a word correctly, repeat it back to him in a positive tone. If your child makes an articulation error, Gusenoff said, repeat it back to them incorrectly so they can hear what they actually said versus what they think they said. Some kids may not realize they’re making an error until mom or dad repeats it back to them!

Make Lots of Observations

Now that you’re spending dedicated time at home on speech therapy, it’s important to start tracking your child’s progress. Gusenoff said fit’s easy to forget or overlook where your child is starting out when learning a new skill, meaning you can underestimate the amount of progress they’ve made. Keep a record or log so you can visually track your efforts.

Gusenoff also recommends paying attention to what words you can understand from your child compared with what a grandparent, for example, and a total stranger can understand. There will be differences between those three metrics (i.e. you can understand 75 percent, your mother-in-law can understand 50 percent, and a stranger can understand 25 percent), but there shouldn’t be enormous gaps between each tier. According to Nemours, most people—regardless of how well they know your child—should be able to understand the majority of your child's speech by the time they turn 4.

Know Your Limitations

It’s important to understand that you may be able to guide and assist your child at home, helping to develop much-needed skills, but you may not be able to correct more significant problems without a professional. It’s one thing to help your child say his “d” and “b” sounds more clearly, but it’s another thing to teach him how to form more complex sounds involving the tongue or back of the throat.

Gusenoff added that kids who are very frustrated by their speech problems, who regress or don’t make any progress, who grope for sounds but are unable to move their mouths, and kids who experience quality of life issues because of communication errors or delays are not the best candidates for at-home speech therapy and would benefit from professional help.

If you’ve reached the limit of what you can provide for your child yourself, try not to take it as a personal offense. Instead, do what you can and then reach out for more help. Your child’s pediatrician is a great place to start—they often know all of the local resources and can point you in the right direction.

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