Fifteen preschool-aged children with language disorders are finding friends and treatment at a half-day summer camp hosted by the University of Arizona's department of speech, language and hearing sciences.
The six-week summer program is free for participating families and gives kids a valuable preschool experience, while allowing researchers to test methods for improving the children's language skillset.
Initially funded by the National Institutes of Health and now sponsored solely through volunteer time and contributions of donor Cecile Moore, the program is in its fourth year, with promising results emerging each year, said Elena Plante, a professor of speech, language and hearing sciences and a certified speech-language pathologist.
To design the treatments, Plante and her collaborator, Rebecca Vance, who is a senior research specialist and certified speech-language pathologist at the UA, build upon treatments that have been written about in professional literature.
"We try to make them faster and make the treatment effect stronger. We want to see kids getting better faster than they otherwise would," Plante said.
"We take those conditions that we know facilitate rapid learning for infants and then translate them into a therapeutic context for our kids," she explained. "And it works."
The treatments are administered in half-hour segments in a quiet space, apart from the other children, by either doctoral candidates training for clinical research or master's students training to become practitioners. The amount of time in treatment per day is comparable to what the children would get if they were enrolled for treatment in a public school, Plante said.
In one treatment, the children hear several examples in a short amount of time of a language pattern that the researchers want them to assimilate. The examples must be different from each other, Plante said. "If you want a kid to learn plurals, where you attach an 's' to the end of a word, it doesn’t work to say 'dogs, dogs, dogs, dogs.'"
Instead, the children actually benefit from hearing many different examples of plural words, such as: 'dogs, cats, books, horses.' Out of the variety, Plante said, they begin to see the pattern.
Why some children have so much difficulty with language is not known for certain, Plante said. "It looks like it's of complex genetic origin because there have been multiple genes that are implicated as potentially causing these traits."
Because of their difficulty communicating, children with language disorders often are labeled as having a learning disability. However, Plante noted: "These kids do not have limited intellectual capabilities. If you give them an IQ test, which we do, they come out in the normal range."
"What they can't do is process meaning, and they have a lot of difficulty putting their thoughts into words," Plante said. "They tend to use simpler sentences than a child without this disability would at their age; they often have limited knowledge of what words mean and they really struggle with grammar."
"It turns out that a very large percentage of those who seem to have a learning disability actually have a listening, speaking, reading or writing disability," she added. "All these are language-based skills."
By improving treatments that can be implemented at a young age for children with language disorders, Plante and Vance hope to help such children integrate more rapidly and easily with their peers, and develop the tools they need to propel themselves forward through their educations and careers.
"People think because these kids are so young, they have plenty of time to catch up to their peers," Plante said. "But the reality is that they don't. They get to kindergarten and first grade and they are not ready to learn, and then they fall behind. We know from the research literature that the kids who are poor readers in the first grade are the same kids who are poor readers in 12th grade."
Each year that the study continues, the researchers slightly alter their methods to continue to improve assistance for the children. Said Plante: "We’re basically doing the best of what worked last year and tweaking that to see if we can make it even better."
For the 4- and 5-year-olds who attend, the camp is a chance to be immersed in a high quality preschool setting, to strengthen interactions with their peers and develop behavior skills to prepare them for kindergarten and grade school.
"Many of these kids have never had a friend," Plante said. "We teach them how to be a friend to others."
The researchers have created a rich preschool program for the children to assist and encourage minority and low-income families to participate and to become better acquainted with the university environment.
The classes are structured around a summer theme, which this year is the Desert Southwest. The children participate in activities that reinforce the language skills they've been learning, as well as teach them about the plants, animals and culture of the Desert Southwest.
The camps are staffed with undergraduate students who are mostly speech, language and hearing sciences majors.
"It gives them a lot of hands-on experience with behavioral management, and developing and implementing a language-based curriculum that can improve both the language and pre-literacy skills of these kids," said Plante.
"We're training undergraduates, master students and doctoral students within this summer program. And at the same time developing therapies for children who have difficulty developing language normally," she said. "It's a win-win for the university and the community."