An Interview With Confident Kids Founder, and Speech and Language Specialist, Sarah Billingham
Before many of us actually have children, we imagine it. Wondering what their first words will be, watching them play pretend with their toys, hearing them say, ‘I love you’ to us for the first time. Then later, picking them up from school listening intently as they excitedly tell you all about their day. These are just some of the joys we expect to experience that make childbirth and sleepless nights worthwhile. Yet, not all of us get what we expect.
Over 1 million children in the UK are dealing with some form of long-term speech or communication difficulty. Note, this is long-term only and does not include those with delayed speech. Sarah Billingham wonders if this statistic might be reduced if more parents were able to get help for their children earlier on when their language development difficulties first become apparent.
Sarah is a Speech and Language Specialist Teacher and now founder of Confident Kids, an SEN focused service helping families of children with developmental delays. Confident Kids does this through arming parents with knowledge, techniques, emotional support and practical strategies.
Sarah and I speak over Zoom and laugh as she explains to me that none of this was her idea. In fact, her friend Amanda wanted to make a service available to empower parents to support their own children’s communication. Having worked as a Neonatal Occupational Therapist, Amanda was keen to fill the support gap after hospital discharge. Therefore, Amanda got Confident Kids up and running, alongside Sarah, and then handed over the reins. It’s heartwarming to hear yet another story of women seeking to work together to solve the ever-growing gap in accessible family services in the UK.
“When I had my first child, six years ago, there was free drop-in support, breast-feeding clinic and many mother and baby groups to join,” Sarah explains. “Yet by the time I had my second child, last year, there was hardly anything. All these services had been shut down. Many of the venues turned into luxury flats. And that was before the Covid pandemic.”
“This is a huge concern in regards to the mental health of mothers. I drew so much support from these mother and baby services a few years ago, and now they’re not there. Especially for first-time mothers this really concerns me because they might not seek out the services privately. Either because they don’t know how much they help or because it’s not affordable.”
So it’s no wonder that when some parents begin to have concerns about their child’s speech and language development they have no idea where to turn.
There can be many reasons for delayed speech or communication
difficulties in children, including autism, development language disorder, selective mutism, hearing problems and many more. Many health professionals prefer a ‘wait and see’ approach. However, due to long waiting lists for assessments and access to services, Sarah encourages parents to seek help as soon concerns emerge. “Many parents worry when milestones are not reached in line with other children and most of these worries melt away in a few weeks or months. However, if there is a developmental issue then often there is much that can be done. Early intervention is key and so delaying getting your child's name on these waiting lists can result in missed opportunities. It’s not easy to make up for lost time,” Sarah tells me.
Yet, putting your child in the hands of experts can seem daunting and even a barrier in terms of feeling as if someone else is taking over responsibility. Although support is most treasured and vital, Sarah’s approach is to do so by empowering parents to confidently play the central role in guiding their child’s development. This is achieved through talking with parents, observing play, coaching, sharing knowledge and teaching parents a range of techniques including modelling useful activities they may continue with their child. Also, Sarah assists parents in navigating SEN systems and even helping them in selecting the right school. “Education for children with SEN challenges is somewhat of a labyrinth,” Sarah admits. “Due to my background and continued work in education, I am able to support speech and language delayed children by observing them in educational settings. I am then able to support their educators in best meeting their needs.” Does this not put extra pressure on the schools? I asked Sarah. “Often none at all. Having experience of school settings myself, I know how much easier it can be when teachers and support staff are armed with proper knowledge and understanding of each child’s individual needs and are part of a clear plan for how to best help them thrive. As opposed to them having to create a plan themselves which may not fit in with the approach being taken in the home.”
So what can parents do in the home to support their child’s speech and language development?
“Well, the first thing,” Sarah advises, “is to try not to see it as a problem if your child’s speech seems to be slow-developing. Communication, as a measure of a child’s development, is often not accurate. Besides, communication and speech are different things. There are many ways that people communicate which goes way beyond language. Hence, why teaching your child Makaton sign language is such a good idea.” I’ve heard this debated. Especially in the cases of children who are delayed in their speech. Some argue that teaching sign language strips the child of a reason to begin to communicate vocally. I ask Sarah if this is true. “It’s a common misconception and I can understand the logic. Yet, a baby cries out because it’s hungry or needs changing. This doesn’t stop them from learning other ways to communicate as they grow. In fact, first comes gestures and then often the spoken word. Because visuals help us to remember lexicon. That’s why we start children off with a visual alphabet - ‘A’ beside a picture of an apple, and so on.”
Sarah opens me up to how much is really involved in language development. We think of speech as first words, seconds words, two words put together, then requests and eventually full sentences. Yet, we learn to speak through learning many other things first, including rhythm and listening skills.
“Teaching a child to sit reasonably still, maintain eye contact and listening is one of the first ways they are introduced to the concept of communication,” Sarah tells me. “This all comes back to why it’s important not to panic when you suspect your child’s speech may not be progressing as it ‘should’. When children are reluctant to speak this often sparks a cycle because we become less inclined to communicate with them because it seems as though we’re not getting anything back. But this doesn’t mean they are not absorbing anything.” This I know to be true, having challenged my daughter many times when she’d appeared not to be listening, only to find she can repeat back what I’ve said exactly.
So, if language is a natural progression then how might an SEN specialist be able to help a child in their speech development? “The key to helping everybody is to assess. This means watching the child in their natural settings and not just making note of what they can’t do, but what they can. As soon as a family member begins to have concerns about a child’s development then it can become a habit to worry about what they aren’t doing in comparison to other children and miss what they are.” “Apart from all the practical things that seeking out an SEN Specialist or Speech Therapist can help with, it’s the support which is often the most needed. I can’t tell you how much relief I see in parents when a proper plan for supporting their child’s development is formed. Many times I come into families who are in disagreement about whether there is a problem or in how to approach that. Having somebody objective come in can stop all the spiralling, the anxiety and the fog.” This makes a lot of sense, especially given Sarah’s mission to empower parents through sharing her knowledge. Guiding, as opposed to leading.
2020 has been a very different year though. The pandemic has made home visits difficult and much of Confident Kids’ work has moved online. At first, this was difficult but now Sarah has noticed many benefits that have come with this new way of supporting the families she works with. “Support is generally better if it’s regular and information is better absorbed if in small bursts. Online sessions allow for this far more than travelling to a family home and spending hours there which can be as much of a strain as a help.” “Of course, there are many benefits in real contact but the virtual world has meant I’ve been able to help families across the UK. The approach is still very personal. I create demo videos to show parents how they might apply the techniques we discuss and that means they can keep referring back to them.” The Covid-19 crisis has thrust us into working with technology even more and this has been both negative and positive. I can’t help but wonder if we’ve lived with modern technology for over a decade and yet are only just really beginning to understand how it can benefit our daily lives and can connect us even when we are far apart. Or even strangers. Given that so many of the basic care and social support systems that were helping families have been in decline for the last few years, perhaps this pandemic has shown us a way in which these services can make a comeback. Sarah has worked this out and Confident Kids is still helping families support their children’s development and striving to make this as affordable as possible. Aside from which, services like Sarah’s can be accessed mostly without waiting for months. Unfortunately, not all families can afford to access these services privately, but meanwhile, organisations like Confident Kids are showing our Government what can be achieved and how possible it is to operate even in challenging circumstances. To be there for families who need support and reassurance. No matter what. If you would like to find out more about Confident Kids please visit their website
If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development then please find out more at https://cchp.nhs.uk/cchp/explore-cchp/speech-language-concerns