Infant Directed Speech: Not just for play!

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How often do you coach parents of the infants and toddlers on your caseload to incorporate language elicitation strategies into play? Probably a lot. And for good reason—infant directed speech (the spontaneous changes in a caregiver’s language and speech that support language development, commonly called “motherese”) is often automatic for parents when playing hide-and-seek or exploring those new birthday toys.

But how often do you coach parents to address communication development during feeding?  If this is already a part of your practice, pat yourself on the back!  Currently, the majority of research on infant directed speech is within the context of play, but this study found promising results when examining changes in mothers’ speech and language with their infants and young toddlers across play, milk feeding and solid feeding routines. See the full article for a handy graphic about specific differences across these conditions and a detailed explanation of what we know about infant directed speech so far, but here are some key take-aways when it comes to feeding routines and capitalizing on infant directed speech:

  1. Caregivers naturally make more attention-directing statements during solid feeding compared to their adult-directed speech baselines.

  2. Caregivers’ type-token ratios are higher during feeding than even in play. (And that skill can be really difficult to teach!)

  3. Feeding happens at least three times a day, every single day.

  4. You can address feeding and language goals simultaneously.

Admittedly, this study has some significant limitations. The sample size was fairly small and consisted of a very heterogenous group of mother–child dyads without any significant medical diagnoses or feeding difficulties. This study is also one of just a few to take an in-depth look at infant directed speech during feeding, and the authors have several suggestions for further investigation in this area. But if you are already inclined to work language development into all parts of a toddler’s day (and let’s face it—of course you are, you’re an SLP), this study should be a great excuse to have a snack with your next client and their caregiver!

  

Zimmerman, E., Connaghan, K., Hoover, J., Alu, D., & Peters, J. (2019) Is feeding the new play? Examination of the maternal language and prosody used during infant-directed speech. Infant Behavior and Development. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2019.01.005

Additional commentary:

  • The first author of this paper was interviewed in a podcast episode discussing this paper. Check it out!

  • In the United States, is seems like we’ve put a lot of value on parent–child play; however, this hasn’t always been the case. This opinion piece is an interesting commentary parent–child play interactions.

Babble Boot Camp: Yes, it’s a thing

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Pretty much all therapy we do is reactive, as in response to a diagnosed speech or language delay. But what about preventative therapy? As early interventionists, we often see young children who have diagnosed conditions that will almost certainly lead to speech and language delays. What is the best way to work with families in this particular situation? Peter et al. studied a preventative intervention they coined “Babble Boot Camp.” Aside from the adorable name, this parent-implemented program actually had some pretty neat results.

The children in this study had been diagnosed with Classic Galactosemia (CG), which is a genetic disorder that can be diagnosed at birth. Children with CG have a very high rate of speech and language disorders, but, as is typical with EI, often don’t receive intervention until the speech and language delays become apparent. Instead of waiting for the inevitable, these researchers started young—at two months, to be exact.

Babble Boot Camp is a program of activities and routines specifically developed for children in the pre-speech or very early speech and language stages of development. Parents met with an SLP via telepractice for 10 minutes per week to receive training and consultation. Examples of activities included reinforcing and stimulating coos and babbles, joint book reading, naming objects, imitation, and expanding children’s utterances. The SLP provided ideas for incorporating these techniques into routines and daily activities.

All children who participated in this study showed greater babbling complexity and increased complexity of meaningful speech compared to the control child (who also had CG). The majority of the children also demonstrated age-appropriate expressive vocabulary and communication skills at 24 months, which is pretty impressive for children with such a high chance of delay. Although this study used a small sample size, it does provide preliminary evidence that a proactive approach to speech/language intervention may be effective in the long-term; so get those families enlisted!

 

Peter, B., Potter, N., Davis, J., Donenfeld-Peled, I., Finestack, L., Stoel-Gammon, C., . . . VanDam, M. (2019). Toward a paradigm shift from deficit-based to proactive speech and language treatment: Randomized pilot trial of the Babble Boot Camp in infants with classic galactosemia. F1000Research. doi:10.12688/f1000research.18062.1

Measuring the earliest forms of communication

As you may have realized (with frustration!) by now, we have limited options for evaluating the expressive communication skills of children who are minimally verbal. Enter: the Communication Complexity Scale (CCS), designed to measure just that. Prior papers have described the development of the CCS and determined its validity and reliability, but in this study, we get to see it in action with a peer-mediated intervention.

First, a little bit about the tool. It’s a coding scale—not a standardized assessment—that can be used during observations. Because prelinguistic communication skills often take time to develop with this population, this tool helps us think about all the incremental steps along the way and accounts for the variety of communicative modes the children might use. It’s a 12-point scale following this pattern:

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The researchers found that the CCS could measure improvement in overall communication complexity and behavior regulation for preschoolers with autism after a peer-mediated intervention (the same one we reviewed here!).

So far in the research, the CCS has only been used during structured tasks meant to elicit communicative responses (see the supplemental material), such as holding a clear bag with toys where the child can see it, but can’t access it independently. We know it's crucial to observe our students in natural communication opportunities, though, so we'd have to be a little flexible in using the CCS during unstructured observations. The scale could definitely be useful when describing communication behaviors during evaluations or when monitoring progress. Wouldn’t it be much more helpful to say “The child consistently stopped moving (i.e. changed her behavior) in response to the wind-up toy stopping” instead of “The child was not observed to demonstrate joint attention”? Using the CCS, we have new ways of describing those “small” behaviors that really aren’t small at all!

NOTE: This study crosses over our Early Intervention vs. Preschool cut-offs, with kids from 2 to 5 years old. So is published in our School-Age section, too!

Find links to the scale and score sheets, here.


Thiemann-Bourque, K. S., Brady, N., & Hoffman, L. (2018). Application of the communication complexity scale in peer and adult assessment contexts for preschoolers with autism spectrum disorders. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. doi:10.1044/2018_AJSLP-18-0054

Extreme prematurity and behavioral problems: When is it a problem?

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We know that children born extremely preterm (less than 27 weeks gestational age) are at risk for a whole host of developmental problems, including cognitive, language, motor, and feeding delays, but the relationship between these delays and behavior problems are not well studied…yet. In this study, authors tried to better understand the relationship between global development (using the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development – III) and behavior problems (using the Child Behaviors Checklist, CBCL) in more than one thousand toddlers born extremely preterm.

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that toddlers with a higher total behavior score (meaning more problems) were more likely to have lower cognitive, language, and motor scores. But some types of behavioral problems weren’t significant after researchers controlled for certain different factors.

Behaviors that were categorized as externalizing, anxiety, attention/hyperactivity, and oppositional defiant only had a statistically significant relationship with low cognitive and/or language scores before researchers adjusted for socio-economic factors. On the other hand, internalizing, affective, pervasive developmental, and total behavior scores were all correlated with lower cognitive, language and motor scores even after the researchers controlled for things like socio-economic factors, medical diagnoses and sex. 

That means if you’ve got a little one on your caseload that was born before 27 weeks gestation, these behavior categories (internalizing, affective, pervasive developmental, and total behaviors*) should set off red flags for you!

Now, the authors acknowledge that we still aren’t sure if these behavior issues cause developmental delays or the other way around (or maybe they both feed off of each other in a vicious cycle), but including a measure of behavior in your evaluations could help you describe behaviors more accurately, determine how at-risk a given toddler is and set goals that are truly impactful for the family. For more on assessing risk in preterm infants, see our previous reviews here, here, and here.

*If the names for behavior types from the CBCL are a bit confusing, it might help to know that they are aligned with DSM-5 criteria for corresponding diagnoses. Or you can get more information from the CBCL manual.

Lowe, J. R., Fuller, J. F., Do, B. T., Vohr, B. R., Das, A., Hintz, S. R., Watterberg, K. L., & Higgins, R. D. (2019). Behavioral problems are associated with cognitive and language scores in toddlers born extremely preterm. Early Human Development. doi:10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2018.11.007

“Try this at home” isn’t enough

The effects of coaching on teaching parents reciprocal imitation training

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There is an ever-growing research base for parent-implemented interventions for children with ASD, and for good reason! We know that in order for children with autism to make progress, they need high treatment intensity. The most cost-effective, naturalistic way of reaching that treatment intensity is by teaching their parents how to use intervention strategies with their children on a daily basis. The other side of this coin, however, is that we also know that treatment fidelity is an important factor in child outcomes; how closely parents adhere to the intervention will impact their child’s progress.  

This study looked at how one-on-one coaching affected parents’ ability to implement an evidence-based intervention for their child with ASD, and how their use of the strategies impacted their child’s outcomes. The intervention taught to parents was reciprocal imitation training (RIT). RIT is a naturalistic developmental behavioral intervention (NDBI; Schreibman et al., 2015) that teaches young children with ASD to spontaneously imitate within a social interaction. It uses naturalistic behavioral strategies such as following the child’s lead, modeling, prompting, and reinforcement.  

Three parents and their children with ASD participated in this study. The parents attended a training where they learned all of the ins and outs of how to do the intervention. Then they went home and video recorded their attempts to use the strategies once per day. After a few weeks, a clinician came to their home and provided coaching on the strategies once per week for 6-7 weeks. The researchers then went through the recordings and measured both the parents’ use of the strategies over time and the children’s growth in imitation skills. They found that parents were able to implement RIT with high accuracy (yay!), but only after individualized coaching support. While some of the parents improved significantly after the initial training, they all needed a therapist to come to their house and coach them in order to master the strategies. The children in the study all increased their spontaneous imitation, but only after their parents became consistent and accurate with at least some of the components of the intervention.

This study extends our understanding of the importance of coaching parents on strategies rather than relying solely on verbal instruction or suggestions. Here we have data to show how these parents needed more than just verbal instruction; they needed live feedback and training in order to use the strategies accurately and consistently, and only then did child outcomes improve. Providing parents with active coaching provides parents with the tools needed in order to support their children’s social communication. 

Note: If you are interested in learning more about RIT, you can check out this article. And here is the measure that the researchers used to evaluate the parents’ use of the strategies.

 

Penney, A. & Schwartz, I. (2018). Effects of coaching on the fidelity of parent implementation of reciprocal imitation training. Autism. doi: 10.1177/1362361318816688.

Long-term outcomes of Hanen’s Target Word program

How much of a long-term impact does parent-implemented speech–language therapy have on late talkers? That’s an important question. Most studies have focused on short- or medium-term outcomes and have not looked into long-term follow-up results.

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These researchers wanted to know the medium- and long-term effects of a low-dosage parent program for late talkers. To do this, they provided the Hanen’s Target Word program to 30 parents of 24-month-old late talkers, and followed a different set of 30 parents–child pairs that did not receive the program. The program included five group sessions and two individual video-feedback sessions over the span of three months. They then tested parents’ use of the strategies at 36 months, and language skills at 36 and 48 months.

They found that the program accelerated the vocabulary growth for the late talkers, but by age 4, there were no longer any differences between the two groups’ expressive vocabularies and both had reached age-appropriate scores. Both groups, however, continued to fall behind their peers in syntax and grammar.

The parents who participated in the study followed their child’s lead more and put less communicative pressure on their child; however, the parents did not significantly improve in how often they responded to their child’s communication or in how much linguistic stimulation they provided their child. Through analysis, the researchers found the strategy of reducing communicative pressure to be specifically associated with children’s language growth.

Here are some important considerations and takeaways from the study:

  • Null long-term results don’t mean that the intervention wasn’t worthwhile. As we know, increasing two year olds’ vocabularies can help ease the frustration of not being able to communicate which is an important goal of early intervention.

  • Dosage and coaching style play an important role in treatment outcomes. The authors discuss how the parent results of this study differed sharply from the Roberts and Kaiser (2015) study in which the researchers taught parents Enhanced Milieu Teaching (EMT) strategies, and parents were able to learn all of them. One of the reasons why is that the intervention dosage was much higher for the EMT study (four workshops and 24 hour-long sessions, compared to two), giving parents more opportunity for practice and feedback. Adjusting the dosage or coaching style of the Target Word program may be one option for increasing its long-term effectiveness.

  • Reducing communicative pressure may be an especially important strategy for parents. This is a simple strategy to teach parents, and these results demonstrate how powerful it can be for supporting language growth in toddlers.

  • Ongoing monitoring is important for late-talkers. Nearly one third of the children who participated still had language scores below the normal range at four years of age, but fewer than half of those children received speech–language therapy after the study. Monitoring is important to ensure that these children don’t fall through the cracks when language demands as they grow older.

One final note: this isn’t a replication study of Hanen’s Target Word program, but rather it’s a study that tested its effectiveness in real-world contexts. That’s awesome for two reasons: (1) authors aren’t tied to Hanen, which helps eliminate bias, and (2) real-world contexts = more like what we SLPs face = more clinically applicable! 

Want more? These authors also published a study of Hanen’s Target Word program (so popular!) This retrospective study (looking back at client charts) similarly showed gains in communicative participation and vocabulary for children who participated in the program.

 

Kruythoff-Broekman, A., Wiefferink, C., Rieffe, C., Uilenburg, N. (2019). Parent-implemented early language intervention programme for late talkers: parental communicative behaviour change and child language outcomes at 3 and 4 years of age. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders. doi: 10.1111/1460-6984.12451

A case for the assessment of gestures

We know that early gesture use is strongly related to language outcomes in toddlers. This study by O’Neill et al. found that, in fact, two-year-olds’ performance on standardized measures of gesture comprehension and use were correlated with expressive language skills at kindergarten entry.

Unfortunately, many of our traditional language assessments don’t dive deeply into this nonverbal form of communication. So how can an Early Intervention SLP measure early gesture use?

In this study, they used standardized play-based assessments of comprehension and use of gestures and symbols—the Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales and the Early Sociocognitive Battery (not yet commercially available). These assessments use structured but flexible activities that provide the child with opportunities to use or interpret gestures or symbols. For instance, the assessor gestures the use of an object (such as pretending to use a hammer or comb one’s hair), which then prompts the child to find the appropriate item and roll it down a chute. These tasks are nonverbal, which may help the child to feel successful. 

Although the use of a standardized measure of gesture use and comprehension provides valuable insight into how children are communicating nonverbally compared to their peers, using these formal assessments obviously isn’t required. SLPs could easily develop their own informal tool based on these important prerequisite skills for communication.

As the authors point out, assessment of gesture provides a ton of useful information, including:

  • How the child functionally communicates

  • The child’s communicative intent

  • The frequency, type, and means by which the child compensates for their communication delay

  • Where to start with intervention

Thus, gesture use is more than just a meaningful way for nonverbal toddlers to communicate. It is a clinically useful measure of nonverbal skills that correlate with language outcomes and should be considered in our Early Intervention evaluations.

 

O’Neill, H., Murphy, C., & Chiat, S. (2019). What our hands tell us: A two-year follow up investigating outcomes in subgroups of children with language delay. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. doi:10.1044/2018_JSLHR-L-17-0261

Go long! Go deep! Storybook reading intervention to target breadth and depth of word knowledge in preschool-age children

One of the most fun and, quite honestly, easiest contexts that we can use in therapy with toddlers and preschoolers is shared book reading. And, it’s kind of a no brainer that we can and should be using interactive read alouds to target one of the key areas of language development that’s lacking in our 2-, 3-, and 4-year-old clients: receptive and expressive vocabulary*.

In this intervention study of 226 preschoolers, they found that:

  • Kids who had a high initial level of vocabulary knowledge were able to increase their understanding and use of words through exposure alone.

  • However, for kids with the weakest initial vocabulary levels, exposure and repetition isn’t enough.

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So what helps? Explicit instruction. Their explicit intervention activities included: pictures, clear child-friendly definitions, and being encouraged to act out, use, and explain target words. They found that in order to go beyond breadth (the number of words that you know) to depth (how much you know about a word), explicit instruction of word meaning and interactive activities that extend understanding beyond how the words are depicted in the book, helped. Ultimately, going long and going deep is key if we want to have a long-term impact on vocabulary development.

*This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed the topic of word learning during shared book reading. See this review, too.

 

Dickinson, D. K., Nesbitt, K. T., Collins, M. F., Hadley, E. B., Newman, K., Riveria, B. L., …Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2019). Teaching for breadth and depth of vocabulary knowledge: Learning from explicit and implicit instruction and the storybook texts. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2018.07.012

Understanding Mexican culture to inform clinical practice

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Understanding the culture of the clients we serve is always crucial to implementing effective evidence-based practice. This article is a great one for learning about the impact of Mexican culture on language and learning.

This study of 35 Mexican mothers of toddlers is one of the most well-done and dense (in a good way) descriptions of the associations between culture, language, and learning we’ve seen in a while. There is a lot in here; so, honestly, if you have a large proportion of Mexican children on your caseload, this study warrants a full read!

But, of course, we’ll give you a couple big take-aways, to give you something to consider right away! Two primary ones from this article were:

  1. Consider the developmental relevance of activities other than play. When coaching a parent on how to stimulate language naturally, you must know what activities that adult participates in most with the child. For Mexican mothers, this is often mealtime and caregiving routines, and less often things like pretend play.

  2. Consider communication partners other than the mother. Mexican families tend to value the roles of everyone in the family—older siblings, dad, extended family members— in teaching and raising the child. Perhaps most notable is the role of older siblings, who not only play a lot with the younger siblings but also teach them how to behave and participate productively in the family. Basically, if you’re only looking at coaching mom, you’re likely not looking broadly enough, and need to consider the diverse and integral roles of all family members.

Cycyk, L.M., & Hammer, C. (2019). Beliefs, values, and practices of Mexican immigrant families towards language and learning in toddlerhood: Setting the foundation for early childhood education. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2018.09.009

Spanish and English in the classroom: Does it matter?

In this study of nearly 2000 dual-language learners (almost all Latinx) ages 18 months to age 5, in Educare/Head Start programs across the U.S., the researchers asked—does classroom language matter? 

Children were observed in each of three classroom categories:

  • English w/ No Spanish

  • English w/ Some Spanish

  • English & Spanish

The researchers found that all three classrooms supported English growth, but the English + Spanish classroom best supported Spanish growth. So to support Spanish growth, we may need more balanced bilingual instruction.

The authors further state, “… DLL children learn English at equal (and advanced) rates regardless of L2 classroom exposure, when in high-quality classrooms”, and thus “… Spanish use in the classroom at varying levels does not impede English acquisition.”

Surprising to most Informed SLPs? Probably not. But this is a great article to share with others if you’re trying to explain the impact of dual language instruction.

 

Raikes, H. H., White, L., Green, S., Burchinal, M., Kainz, K., Horm, D., ... Esteraich, J. (2019). Use of the home language in preschool classrooms and first- and second-language development among dual-language learners. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2018.06.012.