August 2023 Preschool Special Needs Speech Language
Missions Discipleship

Addressing Preschoolers with Special Needs: Speech and Language Disorders

Preschool is a joyous time in human development. Typically, by age four, preschoolers have “mastered” speech and language.

When we encounter a preschooler who either does not talk or is challenged with lack of clarity when they speak, teachers need to be sensitive to their needs. For the child, being misunderstood can lead to frustration and emotions like fear, confusion, or anger.

So, what should a Missions Friends leader do?

Love them. Meet preschoolers where they are just as Jesus did with each person He interacted with while on earth. Show love by providing the support preschoolers need to reduce misunderstanding and frustration. Practically, this means a two-fold approach — one approach for those are verbal but struggle with speech and one approach for those who are nonverbal.

For those who are verbal but struggle with speech:

Listen. Consciously and intentionally listen to preschoolers, allowing them to express themselves the best they can. If we note rising frustration, we can assist by providing the words they may be searching for to express themselves.

Empower preschoolers. By providing opportunities for preschoolers to hear spoken language, challenging them to respond with spoken language, and by encouraging them when they use spoken language, we teach them how to express themselves. Examples of this are:

    • Sing familiar songs. As they sing, preschoolers practice language in a fun way without realizing it.
    • Play mimic games where preschoolers repeat after you. Turn “Simon Says” into a speech game by asking preschoolers to copy what you say: Simon says to say hop, hop, hop while we hop, hop, hop.
    • Ask the same questions each time you meet. This creates a routine and allows the child to be thinking about what he or she might answer. “What did you have for breakfast?” “What’s your favorite part of the day?”

For those who are nonverbal, we still use the same strategies, just in different ways:

Listen. Listen to what preschoolers are not saying.

Read their body language, follow their eyes, and watch how and where they move. Be the “decoder” of their silent messages.

As you decode, offer a child the words for what she is expressing. For example, a child grips a toy tightly, is fidgety, and looks sad. You might ask, “Is something wrong? Do you need a minute to sit quietly? Can I help you find a spot?” This lets the child know you understand what they are communicating and want to help.

Empower preschoolers. Give them what they need to succeed.

A nonverbal child can communicate with sign language and/or with motion. Check with parents to see if there are certain signs or movements the child uses to express basic needs.

Provide picture cards or charts the child can point at to help express themselves — i.e., pictures of a toilet, juice box, or chair. Use the same pictures to label your room so the child knows exactly what each picture means. This gives preschoolers a tool to help them express themselves without language.

As always, discussion with parents is vital. They know the capabilities, the stressors, and the things that motivate their child. Use parent input as your resource for ideas of how to connect with their child. Support like this builds a foundation with the parent and the child where they trust you and are more willing to try to communicate with you.

by Gina Smith

Disclaimer: The information shared on this page is not meant to diagnose or treat a neurological and psychological disorder. We encourage you to follow up with your health-care provider and seek a mental health professional for individual consultation and care.

This blog is designed to help leaders as they teach preschoolers with special needs. The information provided includes tips and strategies but in no way equips leaders to diagnose preschoolers, as preschoolers may not be diagnosed with special needs until they reach elementary school and then only by a health professional. Use the information and suggestions to help you lead preschoolers to enjoy Mission Friends.