Preschool Plateaus

By Pam Marshalla

Q: My daughter is almost 4 and her speech is rarely understood by anyone outside of our family. While my daughter absolutely loves her therapist and has made some progress, she has been stuck at a plateau for a while. My daughter is very bright and has a high level of understanding and of vocabulary. However, she never says her word endings, many letters are omitted, she talks in a very rapid rate, S is always slurred, and she can’t say R. We are at our wits end and very concerned with getting her all the help we can.

I get many letters like yours from parents who are worried about their child’s speech. There is no magic pill and there are no magic solutions. I wish there was. There is only time, good therapy, and good speech-language stimulation at home.

First, she needs time to mature. She is only three. No need to panic. Panicking about this will not help. When SLP’s began to provide speech-language services to preschool children, the idea was to give them a head start – not to fix everything up immediately. She may take a year, or two, or more to fix this.

Second, it is common for kids to plateau. They go through periods where they make rapid progress, and then they go through periods of plateaus that can last a while. During these slower times, it is not that she isn’t making progress. She is assimilating and generalizing the things she has already learned. We all do this when we learn new skills. We progress, and then we slow down. Our coffers are full and we can take in no more information. During the slow down period we are living with our new level of skill, seeing how the world looks from this new vantage point. We are getting comfortable with our new self. Then a point is reached when we are ready to learn more.

During plateaus, pick something she is very good at – like producing words with M or B or D at the beginning of words. Practice THOSE words. This will give her lots of success and joy in saying words with you. This is just like taking piano lessons. The piano teacher does not have a child practice at home what she CANNOT do. The piano teacher makes a child practice at home what she CAN do. And every lesson incorporates one more little challenging piece.

Dialogue: How does this work in conversations that occur throughout the day? You mentioned that she is having trouble with final sounds. So drop them for now when you are talking with her here and there throughout the day. She is wearing a sign that says, “Mommy I love you very much, but I cannot make final sounds. It’s too hard right now. But I would love to talk and communicate with you using the things I CAN do.” Here’s a dialogue to think about:

Child: Me have a sandwich? (“sandwich” pronounced “danny”)
Mom: Sandwich?
Child: Yea, danny.
Mom: Okay… sandwich. Say, please.
Child: Peeee.
Mom: Nice. Say it again, Peee.
Child: Peeee.
Mom: Excellent. You are learning how to say “please”. That was perfect.

This mother is doing much to help her child’s speech:

  1. Notice that the mom did not correct her bad production of “sandwich”. She accepted it for what it was. This is good stimulation. It gives the child the message that you are listening to her, that she said a valid word, and that she is getting her message across.
  2. Notice that the mom did ask her to say a somewhat simpler word: “please”. Notice that the mom modeled it and asked the child to imitate her.
  3. Then notice that when the child said “please” wrong, the mother followed the child’s lead and SAID IT LIKE THE CHILD. This helps the child recognize how she, the child, is saying it. The mother is providing a mirror that she is holding up to the child to say, “This is how you said this word.” The parent is not judging or making fun of the child’s performance. She is merely giving the child information. Notice that the mom gives her credit for saying it the best way she can.
  4. Then the mother said the word correctly again. She told her, “Excellent. You are learning how to say “please”. That was perfect.” This helps the child begin to make comparisons between the way she is saying it and the correct way.
  5. The mother is asking the child to say the word “please” the best way she can – with an initial consonant and a vowel, but nothing else – because she knows that this is the best the child can do right now during the plateau. She is having the child rehearse what she can do, and she is giving her information about where she will progress as time marches on.
  6. During the plateau, spend 85% of your time helping the child practice what she can do. Spend only 15% of your time challenging the child to use new skill. Therefore, once in a while, when stimulating the word “please”, the mom will say, “Say, peesssssss.” Now the mom is asking for that final consonant. If the child can do it, then the mom ups her level of expectations. Now the mom will ask the child to say the word this new way each time.

In regard to slurring and talking too fast: Have your child speak up, speak out, and over-pronounce words at times, like when you are reading stories together. Say the name of the characters big and clear. Don’t worry about the phonemes (letters). Think about the presentation of the syllables instead. Have your child “punch out” each syllable. For example, “elephant” pronounced “EL—-LE—-PHANT”. Don’t worry about the L, or the Ph, or the T sounds. Make the WORD sound better, not the PHONEMES. Reward her for making the word sound bigger, better, clearer.

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