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Preschool Speech Problems


Q. My daughter is 4 and is having some speech delays. There are four sounds she's supposed to be able to say at her age, but she can't. The local school district assessed her and said she needs to go into preschool special ed classes to get this straightened out, or she will be at risk of learning disabilities. My problem is, she is very intelligent, and kind of quirky - she'll talk a mile a minute when she's alone, and doesn't always "perform" for outsiders. I don't think the assessment was fair; I think they "fixed" it to justify taking her into their system and making money off services that she really doesn't need. But I agree, she can't say those sounds, and I don't want to mess her up. What should I do?


That's a really tough call. Speech problems in early childhood are important to notice and correct as soon as possible. It is so important for young children to hear the sounds the letters make correctly, in order to read and write correctly on down the road. They are acquiring vocabulary at such a rapid pace that you want to make sure their "mental dictionary" is in good order, so that they can store words in proper order mentally for later retrieval.


On the other hand, every child is different, the speech delays you describe are not major, and minor speech delays tend to resolve themselves with time and parental encouragement. If your child doesn't have any problems putting things in order, cutting, coloring, or attempting early letter-writing, then you most likely don't have a case of major speech delay that is neurologically based and requires professional intervention - just a normal child lagging a little with a few sounds.


A child with major early language difficulties requires professional intervention, but the problems you describe can't be considered major.


The first thing to do is to work with your pediatrician, have him or her assess your child, and trust his or her advice. The comments by the school district might be an early warning sign to you of an attention problem with your daughter, or a hearing or vision problem that needs attention before she starts school. If everything's normal, then follow through on the pediatrician's recommendations, working with your child's day-care provider, if any.


Before you go to the pediatrician, find out whether the person with the school district who assessed your child is a licensed speech pathologist. That's important information to give your pediatrician. An "amateur" assessment by someone other than a trained speech expert isn't as powerful a "presenting cause," and your child's doctor should know what credentials the original assessor had.


Remember, too, that your gut feeling is worth a pound of professional opinions. So trust your instincts as well. It's crucial that you remain supportive and encouraging of your child, and never worried or giving off nonverbal clues that you think your child has a problem.


Most children can understand a lot more than they can say at any given time, so don't get too worried about a 4-year-old's slightly lagging "performance," unless it persists.


Also, no matter what you do, be sure to seek out books for parents on games, toys and conversations you should have in your home to help your child speak better. You might need to fine-tune how you interact with your child on a daily basis. Research has shown that households in which the parents are careful to speak distinctly and properly, face to face with the child, on a regular basis, to "train" the child's ears to correctly discern the sounds of the English language, tend to help a child along well. Households that interfere with good speech development tend to use TV as a babysitter, perhaps have a day-care provider who does not speak English well, or the parents are so busy they mostly talk to the child in the car when the child can see the back of the parent's head instead of his or her face, and so on.


Like everything else in parenting, most of helping a child develop normal speech is common-sense and revolves around a quality parent-child relationship.


If you and your pediatrician are not sure it's OK to ignore the school district's referral, but don't feel great about enrolling your child in the special ed program, either, then you could ask the school district if it would pay for a second opinion. In that case, take your child to a speech pathologist who does NOT make his or her living based on referrals from, or work within, that school district. You might even consider traveling to a nearby city for this, to avoid any chance of a conflict of interest.


Homework: More information is available on and


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 110 2008


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