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.

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

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

Why a Spanish word list won’t necessarily work for all Spanish speakers

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Gonzalez & Nelson remind us of the need to consider the cultural background of Spanish–English bilingual infants when administering the MacArthur Inventario del Desarrollo de Habilidades Comunicativas: Primeras Palabras y Gestos (IDHC), also known as the Spanish form CDI. The IDHC was originally created and normed using a monolingual Mexican sample from Southern California and Mexico. But Spanish isn’t exactly the same across all Spanish-speaking countries. As result, many of the words on the IDHC reflect Mexican Spanish and may be unknown or uncommon to children from other Latinx communities. While there are adaptations of the IDHC for use with Cuban, Chilean, and Columbian children, this still doesn’t represent the cultural–linguistic diversity we’ll see, especially when many Latinx children come from mixed-nationality homes.

The authors of this study administered the Mexican-normed IDHC to 27 Spanish–English bilingual infants of mixed Latinx backgrounds. The Spanish vocabulary scores for the infants of mixed Latinx backgrounds were significantly lower than the scores of the Mexican norming sample. Further analysis revealed that the parents of mixed Latinx backgrounds reported significantly lower comprehension for a subset of 16 words on the IDHC. It turns out these words were often described by parents as words they themselves didn’t know or words they didn’t commonly use at home. This highlights a potential issue with roughly 4% of the 428 words on the IDHC. When these words were removed, the bilingual mixed Lantinx group continued to have lower scores than the monolingual Mexican group, but the difference in scores was no longer significant. You can check out a complete list of the unknown/uncommon IDHC words in Appendix A.

Unfortunately, we don’t have updated and more inclusive norms for the IDHC to account for these unfamiliar words yet. BUT there is a silver lining here. Using a total vocabulary score (i.e., Spanish IDHC + English CDI) closed the gap between the mixed Latinx and Mexican groups. *Does happy dance* Even with the potentially problematic words on the IDHC, the impact appears to be minimized when both Spanish and English results are combined. This finding reiterates the importance of assessing bilingual children in both languages to get a more complete picture of overall language development.

 

Gonzalez, S.L., & Nelson, E.L. (2018). Measuring Spanish comprehension in infants from mixed hispanic communities using the IDHC: A preliminary study on 16-month-olds. Behavioral Sciences. Advance online publication. doi: 10.3390/bs8120117

Imitation: a simple and powerful strategy for parents of toddlers at-risk for ASD

While we all know that involving parents in early intervention for toddlers with ASD is important, knowing where to start can be another matter altogether. What if there was one simple and effective strategy that we could teach parents right off the bat--one they could master easily with a big impact? Imitation might fit that bill.

Imitation is a strategy you already have in your toolbox: it’s as simple as copying what a child says or does. It’s been researched in different forms for decades, and it belongs to a family of strategies called “responsive” language strategies. Other responsive strategies include following the child’s interests, avoiding questions and directions, and responding to his communication attempts.

The great thing about imitation as a strategy is that it naturally incorporates many components of other responsive strategies. If a parent is imitating his child, then he is probably following his child’s interests, reducing the number of questions he asks, and paying more attention to how his child is communicating. If we teach parents to imitate, maybe we won’t need to explicitly teach the other responsive strategies!

These researchers did a small study in which they taught three parents of toddlers with ASD* to imitate their children’s actions, gestures, and words (the format of the sessions is fully described in the article!) Generally speaking, the sessions had these components:

  1. The therapist reviewed the parent’s questions or concerns that had come up since the previous session.

  2. The therapist explicitly taught the parent about why imitation is important and how to use it.

  3. The therapist played with the child and pointed out when she imitated the child.

  4. The parent played with the child while the therapist provided the parent with constructive coaching and feedback.

  5. The therapist summarized the session and answered the parent’s questions.

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The results showed that all three of the parents were able to master the imitation strategy, and all three children made improvements in their social eye gaze. An extra cool bonus? As parents started imitating their children, the number of questions and directions they gave naturally decreased without the therapist explicitly instructing them to do so. Talk about getting some great bang for your buck! Imitation shows promise of being a simple and efficient “first strategy” to teach parents. 

*or suspected ASD

 

Killmeyer, S., Kaczmarek, L., Kostewicz, D., & Yelich, A. (2018). Contingent Imitation and Young Children At-Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Early Intervention. doi:10.1177/1053815118819230.

How gesture and word development intertwine in toddlers

We know that children with ASD have difficulty with gestures. If a child comes to us who doesn’t point to share attention, we have red flags waving in our heads. Children with ASD are delayed in their use of gestures, use them less frequently, and have a smaller repertoire. We also know that in typically developing children, gestures come before speech and predict later language abilities. Little research, however, has actually delved into what gesture development looks like in toddlers with ASD and how it relates to their overall language development. Does their gesture development follow a predictable sequence, and does that sequence match that of their TD peers? How are gestures and verbal language linked for toddlers with ASD?

These researchers examined the gesture development of 42 toddlers with ASD and found:

  • Toddlers with ASD’s gesture and language development followed a predictable path that mirrors typically developing peers. This path differed in one interesting and important way, though: typically developing children use pointing as a pre-verbal means of communication, but for many toddlers with ASD, pointing emerged after they began to use words.

  • For toddlers with ASD, as well as their TD peers, combining gestures with single words precedes and predicts when they will begin to use word combinations.

So what does this mean for us?

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First, a point of caution: this study looked at the development of gesture use in toddlers with ASD, but this study design can’t tell us what causes what. Simply because combining words and gestures comes before phrase speech does not necessarily mean that teaching a child to combine words and gestures will result in a child using phrase speech. In order to make that claim, we will need a randomized controlled trial of an intervention that attempts to teach toddlers with ASD phrase speech through targeting gesture and word combinations.

Nonetheless, these findings lend some support to intervention approaches that follow typical development. If a child is not yet using words, targeting early gesture use may support intentional communication and first words. If a child is speaking but not combining his words and gestures together, targeting combining words and gestures may support the development of phrase speech. 

 

Talbott, M. R., Young, G. S., Munson, J., Estes, A., Vismara, L. A., & Rogers, S. J. (2018). The Developmental Sequence and Relations Between Gesture and Spoken Language in Toddlers With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Child Development. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1111/cdev.13203.

Parent-delivered communication intervention for infants and toddlers who are DHH

If you’re an early intervention SLP, you’ve probably had a child who is deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) on your caseload at one time or another. Why? Well, advances in hearing aid and cochlear implant technology have certainly improved the speech and language outcomes of children who are DHH, but aided hearing isn’t the same as typical hearing. And even with early amplification, these children often still miss out on language stimulation pre-amplification, which can lead to delays.

In this study, they taught the parents of nine 6 to 24-month-olds with hearing loss to use four different strategies to promote and reinforce their communicative attempts. This included visual strategies such as moving toys in the child’s line of sight, and interactive strategies such as following the child’s lead and modeling target language to their actions. Parents were also taught responsive strategies like balancing the number of conversational turns that they took when communicating with their child, and linguistically stimulating strategies like expanding on their child’s spontaneous utterances.

The parents who participated in the training and delivered the intervention used more strategies that support communication compared to the parents in the control group. And, by the end of the study, the infants and toddlers who received the intervention demonstrated more prelinguistic communication skills compared to the children in the control group.  

The beauty of this study is twofold: 

First, the strategies that were included in the intervention are all things that we as EI providers are already well-versed in. {That’s because we’re all pretty darn familiar with enhanced milieu teaching (Hemmeter & Kaiser, 1993), prelinguistic milieu teaching (Yoder & Warren, 2002), and The Hanen Program (Girolametto, Pearce, & Weitzman, 1996)}. Second, if you’re an EI therapist, a big part of your job already involves parent training and coaching. This article provides a very simple, clear description of the key strategies that you can teach parents of infants and toddlers on your caseload who are DHH. Definitely the kind of article that you can read and then immediately apply to your practice, which is the best kind of article, am I right?!

 

Roberts, M. (2018). Parent-Implemented Communication Treatment for Infants and Toddlers With Hearing Loss: A Randomized Pilot Trial. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1044/2018_JSLHR-L-18-0079

Social disadvantage and language development—what matters, and how much?

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This is one of the largest studies we’ve seen in a while on factors than impact infant and toddler language—over 1000 babies were followed to see what matters most for language development in the first two years of life.

First, one of the really beautiful things about this study is that they measure social disadvantage, but actually differentiate things parents can control (that is, what they do with their child) from things they can’t (e.g. family income, maternal education). So bravo for that! Then, note that this study is dense. We’re only skimming the surface, here, with the biggest takeaways for SLPs, which are:

 What parents do with their child matters:

  • e.g. “…reading to their child, telling stories, singing and taking the child on errands to public places… having toys… books available in the home… having a safe and supportive home environment.”

  • (In fact, here’s another recent study showing that responsive verbal behaviors in play interactions with a parent at 12 months are predictive of language outcomes at 36 months in a cohort of families experiencing adversity.)

Language at 15 months is highly predictive of language at 2 years.

  • Implication: Are we catching kids early enough?

Now, I think most SLPs pretty much already knew that. But what you may not have a good feel for is how much these things matter. To put it in perspective—the single strongest measured predictor of language was biological sex. Also, most of what predicts language development was not something the researchers were able to measure. Instead, it’s some other thing(s), likely, “… other developmental or genetic mechanisms.” So, basically, what parents do with their children is important not because it matters the most, but because we have control over it (well… we can try to).

 

Law, J., Clegg, J., Rush, R., Roulstone, S., Peters, T.J. (2018) Association of proximal elements of social disadvantage with children's language development at 2 years: an analysis of data from the Children in Focus (CiF) sample from the ALSPAC birth cohort. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1111/1460-6984.12442.

Preterm birth + social disadvantage = extra at-risk

*Another study on social disadvantage; this time, over 100 infants studied.

We know that babies born pre-term are at a higher risk for developmental delays, including language. We also know that children born into socially disadvantaged environments are at risk for language delay. So what happens when a baby from a socially disadvantaged* background is born early? The most SLP-relevant findings include:

  • full-term infants with fewer social risk factors had the best language scores at age 5

  • but low social risk isn’t enough to make up for prematurity (< 30 week gestation)— that is, preterm infants with low social risk did not experience as much language growth from 2- to 5-years as the full-term children (thus, addressing social risk for preterm kids is good, but may not be enough to close the language gap by 5 years)

  • high social risk was associated with decreasing language scores as developmental demands increased with age (and the authors found this trajectory was associated with maternal affect and maternal intellectual ability, so parent interventions addressing affect and responsiveness may be helpful for these children)

The big picture? Just because everything looks “ok” for a child at 2 years doesn’t mean things will look that way at 5 years when cognitive, linguistic, and motor development gets more demanding. Also, very preterm infants and toddlers, at a social disadvantage or not, need our support. We can start by training parent responsivity, but it looks like some preterm children could need more intensive interventions to close the developmental gap between themselves and their full term peers.

*Their definition of social risk included factors like teen parents, single parents, no high school diploma. Refer back to the previous study, though, that shows how a healthy home environment can reduce the impact of these factors.

 

Lean, R. E., Paul, R. A., Smyser, T. A., Smyser, C. D., & Rogers, C. E. (2019). Social adversity and cognitive, language, and motor development of very preterm children from 2 to 5 years of age. The Journal of Pediatrics. Advance online publication. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2018.07.110.