Let’s chat about the “pre” of “preschool.”
“Pre” reminds us that before formal schooling begins, there are foundational skills young children need to master. These foundational skills (or developmental milestones) are simple age-specific tasks that most children can do at a certain age. When these skills are mastered in the preschool years, a child is ready for more complex tasks in kindergarten such as reading or solving a conflict with a school friend.
Many children will master foundational skills naturally when they are given the practice and loving support they need. At the same time, some children have a ‘hiccup” in an aspect of their development (language, motor, attention/focus, behavioral, etc) that makes learning and playing in a group setting a challenge.
Here’s the exciting news: When a preschool teacher (or a parent or a pediatrician) notices a developmental gap or delay, and it is addressed with specialized intervention, remarkable progress can often be made BEFORE formal schooling begins. At Weekday School, we consult with developmental specialists to help our teaching staff each year. We wanted to share the knowledge with you as well. Check out our Q&A just for parents below!
Beth Hewitt: How can parents and teachers know if their child’s development is “on time”? When should parents be concerned?
Robyn Colley (Occupational Therapist):
Great question! Teachers have the luxury of being able to compare children with others in the class for what is “typical” development. Parents sometimes have their older child to compare to but that isn’t always accurate. Parents should rely on their child’s pediatrician, but also on friends, teachers, reputable websites, etc. We should always keep in mind that there is always a “spectrum” of what is typical. If your child is showing signs of mastering a skill and is progressing toward that skill then we wait and see. If your child is not progressing toward a skill, we question why. That does not mean therapy is a necessity but it is always worth it to explore why a child is not progressing toward a goal or skill.
Shannon Reynolds (Speech-Language Pathologist):
There are developmental expectations for speech just like there are for crawling and walking. If we look at expectations for sound production (articulation), a child should be understood by an unfamiliar adult (not just parents) at least 50% of the time, 70% by age 3, 90% by age 4, and 100% by age 5.
Beth: So being aware of how well your child is being understood by other people, which also means that you don’t have to speak for them or explain what they are saying, helps a parent get clues about whether their child might benefit from a speech screening.
Shannon: The goal of an assessment is to determine why speech is not being understood and whether the language skills are at an age-appropriate level. Sometimes, it’s a developmentally appropriate error that a child should grow out of and no therapy is needed. Other times, there is a need for the skill to be professionally facilitated. Once the child is at an age-appropriate level, we send them on their way, and they will probably continue to develop on their own.
Beth: What exactly is occupational therapy and why is it important to assess in the preschool years?
Robyn: Utilizing both science and art, occupational therapy is a health profession devoted to helping people who have motor and behavior problems learn how to perform purposeful activities. For a child, purposeful activities include play, school-work, and activities of daily living (ADL’s). In general, OT improves the functioning of a person’s nervous system, which may be damaged, as in an accident victim, or may be inefficient, as in a child with difficulty achieving success in daily activities. It is very important to keep up and monitor these skills during the preschool years so that we can monitor kids for the underlying skills that affect attention, learning, and social skills.
Beth Hewitt: What happens in an OT screening?
Robyn: A screening takes about 15 - 20 minutes. We always make sure your child feels comfortable leaving the room with the therapist. We are going to assess your child’s motor skills, attention, and more. We are looking at norms for your child’s age. We are taking into consideration your child’s teacher’s impressions as well as parent input.
Beth: There is a stigma about “therapy.” And I hear a lot of parents express concerns that therapy at a young age is overkill or detrimental to a child’s self esteem in some way. And then of course, it’s also an expense. So I understand the pushback there. Can you speak into that hesitant/skeptical mindset?
Shannon: So many parents are scared to talk to me. They are afraid that I’m going to say something is wrong with their child. Most of the kids I see are developing “normally” in every other way, but have a hard time communicating at an age-appropriate level. It’s important to remember that this doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. It isn’t that something is wrong, it’s just not “on time.” A better way to think about speech therapy is to understand that speech opens doors for children to tell their parents about their school day and talk to their friends when they play together. If this is not happening naturally, it can be very frustrating for a child and prevents them from being able to communicate all the thoughts in their heads. If anything, speech therapy improves a child’s self-esteem.
Robyn: Of course there are opportunities for “overkill” here, however there is one way I look at this- If the “issue” that is being discussed is getting in the way of a child’s ability to function OR if it is getting in the way of a child’s ability to progress with their attention, motor skills, or social development, it may need to be addressed in therapy.
Beth: What general advice would you give to all parents about how to encourage the development in their children?
Robyn: PLAY OUTSIDE! Lots of time outside climbing, running, jumping, and exploring. LIMIT ELECTRONICS! Children should explore their environment, near and far, not just play with tools up close. It also limits communication to allow your child to play with phones/ipads throughout the day. We want to be talking with our child in the car, when running errands, at the doctor, etc. Play I Spy, talk about what you see out of the car window, etc.
Shannon: The first thing I would say is something NOT to do. Stay away from drilling your child and using flashcards. Make sure you’re not constantly asking “What’s that?” Instead, engage your child in natural conversation as you move through your day. Ask open ended questions not just yes/no questions. Give your child time to answer you. It takes time for young children to find their own words. Resist the temptation to complete their sentences or answer for them. Engaging in pretend play (with a dollhouse for example) with your child is a fantastic way to encourage language development. Model the things moms and dads and children say to each other. Make up stories about what is happening as you go. If you have a familiar book that you read together, you read one page and let your child “read” the next page.