More than words

Those first words can tell a lot about whether a child is meeting developmental milestones. Here are the reports on the valuable local resources every parent should be aware of

Parents and guardians are usually the first to realize that there might be a delay in their child’s speech and language. As for what to do next, they might not know, says Roxane Bélanger, speech language pathologist and outreach with First Words.

That’s why First Words has an online screening tool, the First Words Communication Check Up (FWCCU), which screens a child’s communication and global development by focusing on speech and language milestones and other areas of development that can link to an indication of a delay. Easily accessed on the First Words website, the FWCCU provides insight for parents on communication, social behaviour, and interaction.

Not meeting milestones should be a red flag for parents, says Bélanger. “But children’s brains are very flexible, so the earlier you can target an issue, the better.”

By age one, children should have at least three to five words that they use—like mama, papa, or ball. They don’t necessarily have to be said correctly, but they should be consistent. Babies at 12 months should also be able to understand simple commands, like ‘sit down.’ Between 12 and 18 months, there should be a growth in language expression and comprehension. At 18 months, toddlers should have at least 20 words in their vocabulary that they use consistently. Bélanger says there is a large language growth between 18 and 24 months. By two, a child should have a repertoire of between 100 and 150 words at minimum, and should be putting short sentences of two to four words together.

“We also want to see that they understand more complex language and abstract concepts like cold and hot, or on and off,” Bélanger says. At all times, parents and any other significant adult involved with young children such as community workers, early childhood educators, home childcare providers and health professionals should all monitor the child’s speech and language development. They should also keep an eye on the child’s interest in social interaction and communication while monitoring all other developmental areas such as their play skills, social behaviours and motor skills. “If there are delays in any of these aspects, then help is needed,” Bélanger says.

First Words offers services to families of preschool children from birth to senior kindergarten entry, but Bélanger emphasizes that it’s important to refer to get support before school entry.

First Words is led by the Pinecrest-Queensway Community Health Centre (PQCHC) but has an integrated partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). All First Words referrals are sent to the CHEO Access team. “I encourage any parent concerned about their child to complete the First Words Communication Checkup on the website,” says Bélanger. “We can aid with that referral and other supports for the family, so they get the best help for their child.”

How a child interacts with other people can provide some insight into how they are doing with speech and language, suggests Kathy Torunski, community educator with First Words Ottawa & Renfrew County. “Parents see their child every day,” says Torunski, “so when it comes to clarity, sometimes it’s difficult to realize they might be having difficulty.” Issues with being understood tend to show up when dealing with other people—an indication that the child could be struggling.

Kathy Torunski. Photo Courtesy Kathy Torunski

Torunski advises parents to go with their gut instinct when it comes to their child, but to get input from others as well. “Talk to your child’s teacher or daycare provider,” says Torunski. “They can not only provide insight, but reassurance for the parent as well.” Torunski says that First Words provides excellent resources for families and most of the straightforward issues are covered on their website. “I try to see the issue through the lens of the family,” says Torunski, “and I’m there to act like their tool book, providing information and resources. At First Words, we offer workshops, presentations and group visits to EarlyON centres, daycares and other community programs, and make it easy for parents to register or drop in. And our topics are aimed at parents and families. There are lots of good resources in the city.”

As part of their outreach work, First Words also has webinars available to parents and the community on their website on various topics, including communication milestones and strategies, and learning more than one language. During the pandemic, First Words also started Instagram account @firstwords_psl to reach out to families with speech and language tips, activities, and information. First Words offers decentralized services across Ottawa and Renfrew County. In Ottawa, First Words provides services in six locations, including at Pinecrest-Queensway Community Health Centre.

Sometimes, parents are afraid to ask for help for their child if they suspect a speech or language issue, says Valerie Marsh, an early childhood educator and parent support worker with the PQCHC EarlyON.

Valerie Marsh. Photo Courtesy Valerie Marsh

“Acknowledging that something might not be just right can be scary,” says Marsh. Fortunately, the PQCHC EarlyON Centre and Family Supports Programs have many tools for parents to use, like the LookSee checklist from 0 to 6, and they refer parents to First Words as an online tool they can access as well. The centre is also in the process of launching the Ages and Stages screening tool for children 0 to 6 by appointment. “COVID really disrupted things,” says Marsh. “It really skewed what is normal. And right now, parents have a lot of questions. Their input on how their child is doing is invaluable. And their input, added to information from an expert, is a good way to get your child help for any concerns with speech and language development.”


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