Transcript: Language Development in Early Childhood – Actionable Tips to Help With Their Speech Development

This is a text transcript from The First Time Mum’s Chat podcast. The episode is called Language Development in Early Childhood – Actionable Tips to Help With Their Speech Development and you can click on the link to view the full episode page, listen to the episode and view the show notes.

Helen Thompson: Many of the parents I speak with find the time when they are expecting their little one to begin speaking an anxious time. Of course the medicos and other childhood experts will give you rough timeframes of when this should happen, leaving you to work out your own child’s developmental timeframe.

For many when that timeframe has passed and they are still not starting their speech they begin to worry, wondering whether there are any developmental problems or issues such as autism in the mix.

I realize this is a tough area for many of you, so I’m delighted to introduce you to this week’s guest, Jill Urbane, who is an early childhood interventionist who has been working with infants and toddlers for many, many years. Jill helps families to understand language and development and shows them ways to get their little ones on the path to words.

During our chat, you’ll hear Jill talk about the 5 pre-language skills that need to be in place before words are really going to start coming, why it’s advisable to avoid exposing your little one to noisy toys, and why they often lead to laziness and speech delays, the main cause of speech delays in early childhood that she has observed during her 25 years of experience,

And so, so much more.

Hi Jill, and welcome to First Time Mum’s Chat. I’m delighted to be speaking with you today about language development in early childhood, and hear some of your observations from your many years of experience in the area. So can you please start by telling us about you and your background?

Jill Urbane: Thank you so much for having me here. I’m so excited to be able to talk about this. It is one of my passions. I am actually a social worker and have been working with families for 30 years in the home, the last 25 of which I’ve done so as an early childhood interventionist, working with infants and toddlers with developmental delays and probably 90% of the kids I work with, speech and language is one of the primary concerns.

So I go in the home and I work with the families on helping them understand language and development and provide them tips and strategies to get their little ones on the pathway to words.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, that’s good. I come from a childcare background as well as baby massage and I know that sometimes speech can be very hard for kids and they stutter and they find it really hard. What are some of the tips to help parents and kids develop their speech and their language?

Jill Urbane: Well, it depends on the child, where we start out, but I think it goes down to 3 basic things that I have found over the last 25 years that I really focus on with parents. The first thing is helping them to really understand language development in young children. I always say that language is like a light that’s on a dimmer switch. Some kids come out and it’s turned all the way up. That would be my firstborn. My son at one was already starting to use words. Now other kids come out and the language light is turned way down. That would be my second born, my daughter. She didn’t have but 2 or 3 words at the age of 18 months.

So, for those kids where the language light is turned down, we have to figure out how to help them build those skills that are needed to actually get to those words. So that’s the first piece, is really understanding what those skills are and what we should be expecting for the age and how the brain processes and learns language best. Then from there, understanding a couple of other little pieces of development, like play skills, cuz that’s a very important part of learning for young children. So understanding and making sure that we know what’s developmentally appropriate for their play, so we can make sure that the activities and the supports that we’re providing are meeting them where they are at that moment.

So that’s kind of the first piece is looking at and understanding the development. From there, we have to understand how our unique children are wired because temperament and personality and communication preferences have a big impact on speech and language development. There are those social kids that are ready to talk to everybody and anybody, and then there’s those quiet observers who are like, I’m not gonna talk to anybody until I’m ready to talk to anybody and then there are those other kids kind of what we call own agenda kids, where they’re just kinda happy doing their own thing. Let me play by myself, I really don’t need to interact with you guys. I’ll bring you something if I want something. Other than that, I’m just going to chill over here.

So when we understand their temperament and their communication preferences, then it makes it easier for us as parents to know how to meet them. So that’s the third piece, is understanding our communication styles as parents. If I’m the super excited, really kinda energetic kind of parent and I’m working with a quiet observer, they may be like that’s too much, I don’t like that, so it doesn’t work. So we as parents have to sometimes adapt and change kind of our communication styles to better meet our children where they’re at. So when we can figure those three things out, then getting the strategies in there to work on the actual skills that we need to, is the easy part. But we have to have that understanding of those three spaces first.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, you mentioned play and I think play is so important. When I studied childcare, I know there are three different kinds of play. I think there’s parallel play and then there’s another two, and I think the parallel play is when they’re playing alongside somebody, but they’re not actually playing with that person. Is it solitary? Is it solitary play that you mentioned that they just want to play by themselves and just be on their own.

Jill Urbane: Yep, independent play is where they start, right, where they’re just kind of doing their own thing and then there’s parallel play, like you said, where I’m playing next to somebody. We may both have blocks, but I’m playing with my blocks and you’re playing with your blocks. Then the last stage is cooperative play where we’re working on something together and that’s something that we look at around the age of three or four for them to actually be doing cooperative play.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, so I think as you were saying, it’s understanding that part of the development and if they’re having difficulties, as a childcare worker, I would just observe and back off and observe what they’re doing and try and support them through observation. As a parent, that would be a different story, wouldn’t it?

Jill Urbane: Well, you know, honestly, I don’t think so in the sense that one of the things that I find the most helpful for parents is, and what I really am trying to do is help them be really good observers of their kids because the hard part is, when we’re there all day every day with our kids, it’s hard to really see everything because it’s just a part of our day and we’ve got busy, crazy routines going on. There are many times I’ll go out on a home visit and I’ll ask a parent, I always start with, what’s new or different since the last time I’m here. Some of them will say nothing and then during the visit I’ll be like, oh, what was that and they’ll be like, oh yeah, he started doing this. Or I’ll be like, holy cow, he just pointed to that, that’s the first time he is pointed and they’re like, oh yeah, I guess he has started doing that. So, learning how to be a good observer because a lot of times our kids are doing stuff or sending signals or showing emerging skills, but sometimes we miss them as parents.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I think so and just going in there and supporting the parent to do that and say, right, well they’ve done this and they’ve got lots of milestones as well. Maybe they know about milestones, but they don’t know what the developmental milestones are.

Jill Urbane: And that’s the really tricky part about language. I was just having this conversation with a parent earlier this week, who’s really worried about her little one, who’s 2 and doesn’t have any words. She’s like, I’ve been all over TikTok and I’ve been doing this, and I’ve been trying that and the hard thing is a lot of these places that you find resources online will say they should be doing this, but they don’t tell you how to teach ’em.

And if they do, say well just do this activity, they don’t realize a skill, like pointing, teaching kids to point, there are all these other little sub skills that have to come first before they’re actually gonna start pointing. So when parents understand all these teeny little steps that we have to take to what seems like a really simple skill, then we can make sure that we’re building that foundation to have that skill come. Cuz a lot of times the attempts that parents are making are above where the child is at and then the parent gets frustrated, worried and scared, and the little one’s frustrated because they’re like, you’re trying to get me to do something, but boy, I’m not ready for that.

Helen Thompson: It’s like drawing. If you’re letting children draw and just play in the mud, draw in the mud, finger painting or whatever it is they’re doing, even if they’re holding a pen and grasping it, they’re still learning that technique and I’m using stuff from a long time ago, but that technique will help them eventually to write and to learn to point and learn to develop their pincer grasp and paragraph . Once they’ve learnt all of that, then they’ll learn how to manipulate their fingers in order to point and I think a lot of parents don’t give the children the opportunity to have fun with playing, and they think that if they’re just playing in the mud and drawing in the mud, they’re not doing anything necessary, they’re just having fun, but they’re actually learning all those skills that might help them down the track.

Jill Urbane: Yeah, I love the saying by Mr. Rogers, that play is the child’s work and I tell parents that all the time cuz they’re like, why is it when I come home from work at 5:00 PM and I walk through the door, my child’s a hot mess and they’re tired and they’re exhausted and they’re in a bad mood and I’m like, well, you’re tired when you get home from work, right? And they’re like, well, yeah. And I’m like, they’ve been working all day. They’ve actually been working way harder than what we work in a day. The amount of neurons and cells and pathways that are being developed all throughout their day is mind boggling to even think about.

Helen Thompson: Yes, I read a book when I was doing my childcare called Play is a Feeling and I was overwhelmed by that. I thought, wow, play certainly is a feeling, and if you give that child the opportunity to do that, they’ll flourish.

Jill Urbane: Yeah and you know, I love that you said that about play being a feeling. I’m gonna have to look that book up because that’s one of the things too that I want parents to understand when it comes to learning. If learning is embedded in play and I have a positive emotion because I’m just having fun and I’m experiencing a really good time in connection with my parent during this play activity, it ramps up learning like by, I’m just gonna say like a thousand percent, a ton. When we can attach positive emotions to an experience, those neural pathways are gonna develop so much more easily and more quickly. So that’s why play is the most powerful way to work on learning with young kids because they’re having a good time and the brain is just on fire in those moments.

Helen Thompson: And it’s how to communicate with them when they’re having that play. Not to interrupt them, support them through language, but not put your words into the child’s words. Ask a child what they’re doing and let them tell you, rather than you saying, oh, that looks like a ship, or that looks like a cake, or whatever. Asking the child and that way, it helps with their development, it helps with their social skills, it helps them to learn words and to learn vocabulary, even when they’re babies as well.

Jill Urbane: I would love to talk about because I know a lot of the folks that are listening have infants, and I would love to talk about ways that we can support language development right from the get go, because there are so many things that we can be doing with our little, little ones.

I think a lot of times we kind of get stuck on the motor part of really young babies, getting ’em sitting and crawling and pulling to stand and all of that. We can be laying a foundation for communication right from the beginning so that they don’t have the struggles that a lot of the kids that I work with do.

I’ve broken it down when I’m working with families that there are 5 pre-language skills that need to be in place before words are really gonna start coming, where that language light’s gonna really turn up. So the first skill is engagement and engagement is three things.

Engagement is, I’m interested in things. So I’m interested in toys, like a baby hanging onto a rattle and exploring this rattle, looking at it and shaking at it. It’s showing an interest in the environment. So I hear a noise and I turn to see what happened. Somebody dropped something in the kitchen and it startled me, so they’re paying attention to those things. They notice the sound of a siren going by. So engagement with the environment, and then obviously engagement with people. This is the foundation of all language. Without engagement we can’t work on any of the other steps because I have to be interested in these things around me and show curiosity about them before I’m gonna be able to learn about them, right?

So a lot of times when we see little ones that are on the autism spectrum, engagement is one of the things that is the most challenging. They may be really engaged with things like toys, but not so engaged with people. So we have to really work on with those little ones, drawing them in or joining their world to help them realize we’re super fun too. I know you like that toy that you’ve got there, but I can make that even more fun. So we have to start with engagement with some of those kiddos. So it’s really, really important to work on engagement and that engagement could just be kinda like, you’re doing the massage and you’re singing some songs, and the baby’s smiling, and you smile back at the baby. The baby sticks its tongue out, and you stick your tongue out and the baby looks at you like, oh I just did that, let me try that again and they stick their tongue back out. Then you do it again and you’re smiling and giving this feedback.

That takes this into the second step and the second skill, which is what I call circles of communication, it’s actually from Stanley Greenspan. So circles of communication are these back and forth things that we’re doing, which is a big piece with infants that I would love for parents to really focus on building longer and longer periods of this back and forth play. Those raspberries, wagging our tongues, doing tongue clicks. If the little ones going ah, that we’re going, ah, back and trying to build and keep these longer and longer. The more circles of communication that we can build with our little ones and have them tuned into us for longer, it then allows us to work on the next skill, which is comprehension.

So understanding language, which doesn’t get enough discussion in the baby books. It’s all like, just get ’em talking. Well, I can’t use words if I don’t know what they mean. So when we have this back and forth dialogue where we’re doing this game and we stop and then we say, oh, more, then we keep doing it again, the more we do that, eventually our little baby’s gonna get to the point where they realize every time they say more, they keep going back to this game. So they start to understand what more means. So this is how we work on comprehension, right?

Then the next step is initiation. Initiation is where a little one is realizing that I can do something to get something. So this is where gestures come in and this is a part where little ones are really good at using gestures. Like babies will use intentional gaze by looking at their bottle when they’re hungry and they see it and their little hands open and close cuz they’re like, oh my gosh, there’s my bottle, I’m looking right at it, hurry up and give it to me. So they’re using intentional gaze and initiation there to let us know. So initiation could be for a little bit older toddler maybe bringing you something that they want open. Bringing you their cup because they want more water. So it’s really important as we’re working on initiation to give our kids time to initiate. Some parents are so good at like, oh, you need water, and just getting it for them. Well, then they’re like, oh, okay, this is groovy, I don’t have to do a whole lot of work to let people know what I want. Then as they get older and we want them to use those words or to work a little bit harder, they’re like, no, no, no, no, that’s not what I do, I throw my cup at you and you go and fill it up. I’m not doing anything more than that. So sometimes waiting to see will they touch, will they reach, will they put your hand on something that they want open, will they look at the item that they want and then look back at you? All of those are indications of initiation.

Then the last step is imitation. So that’s where you’re doing some sounds and they’re imitating your sounds. You’re singing songs and they’re trying to sing along with you. You say cup, and they try to say cup. So that’s a really, really important part of the pre-language skills because 85% of kids that have speech delays are not imitating. So that’s the spot where I think the majority of the kids over my last 25 years, that seems to be the spot where they’re most frequently getting stuck because they’re using all of these gestures to tell us what they want, pointing and bringing, but they’re not imitating our sounds, they’re not imitating our actions and they’re not imitating our words.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, and if you start that from a young age, as you say, with babies, if you imitate them by sticking out your tongue or you know bending your tongue, you are teaching the baby how to do that.

Jill Urbane: Oh, and they love it. There’s just joy and there’s elation when you do that and you can work on initiation. So you can do a couple of peekaboos and then stop and wait and look at your child like, oh, come on, what do you wanna do and then they might take the blanket or the towel and put it up to your face and that’s how they’re saying, I want more of this. That’s initiation and that’s gives us the opportunity to model a word that ultimately we’d like them to say like, oh, did you want more and then go ahead and go back to the game. You’re right, it starts so early. The earlier we start working on these things, we’re just building this solid foundation for communication for them.

Helen Thompson: Even reading a book to a baby. People think that babies don’t understand, babies are too young to read. I know, from my childcare, if I’m right, they prefer to see black and white images to begin with cuz they don’t see color until they get to a certain age. Just reading a book to them. It doesn’t have to be a great book. Just pointing to things and saying, that’s a ball or giving them a little story about it. You don’t have to read them a novel at that age.

Jill Urbane: Absolutely and the great thing about starting at a really young age with reading stories to young kids and I always say keep the stories really, really short, you don’t have to get the big long ones, get the first readers, they’re great, three words on a page, simple pictures to talk about, start with those if, you don’t wanna do any of the longer books. This also helps them with literacy because I don’t think parents always think about the fact that there are stages to early literacy and one of them is exploring books, being able to touch books, being able to chew on a book, that’s why those great vinyl bath books are always awesome. That’s how they learn about flipping pages and starting to make associations, and it’s a whole process. The sooner you can get them familiar with and experiencing and enjoying books, it is one of the most powerful tools later on to work on comprehension and language.

Helen Thompson: I agree and in the bath you can do that too, talking to them. I think that is such a valuable tool. Just plastic books as you say in the bath and just letting them feel the book and feel the pictures. Those touchy feely books I think are quite good cuz then they’re feeling the textures but I don’t like the ones that’ve got buttons that you have to press. I remember ages ago my father bought a book for these friends of ours. I think they were two and a half, maybe three. It was a book that wasn’t one of those button books, it was a really lovely, sort of simple sort of book for the age and immediately when they opened the book they were pressing on the book and I was so upset, not because of what they were doing, but because my father had spent so much time in choosing the book for them, and that’s all they did. They learnt so much about the technology side that that’s what they thought a book was, that they had to press the buttons and touch. Don’t give them technology when they’re a baby. If you’re out and about having a coffee or something, instead of giving them your mobile phone, give them a couple of books or some blocks or, or something they can play with, if you’re wanting to talk to your friends.

Jill Urbane: And let me add this. One of the things that I tell every single parent that I work with is don’t buy noisy toys. If you have push button toys. Now, the classic kind of popup where you push a button and something pops up, the old school, quiet ones where you have to turn this button and poke that one and lift this one up and little figures pop out, those are awesome for cause and effect, but when we’re looking at language and wanting to work on language, noisy toys, if the toy makes the noise, then I don’t need to. if I can touch a button on a car while I’m pushing it across the floor and it’s making all of these sounds and the lights are whirling, then I don’t need to go beep beep vroom vroom.

If I’m touching this button on the book and it says cow, then why should I have to say cow, I don’t need to say cow. So I always tell parents, no noisy toys, get rid of the noisy toys because you have to teach your child how to do those sounds. That’s how we work on stimulating language in young kids.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, absolutely and talking to them about the book and talking to them about the toy and asking them what noise it makes. You are encouraging them to learn. So, I think we’ve discussed a lot of interesting topics here. So is there anything that you would like to add?

Jill Urbane: No, I think that we’ve covered it all. My tip for parents is just to start early and focus on the skills that I talked about and doing that during social play, like music and social games like peekaboo and patty cake, those are the best ways. Music in particular, there are not enough parents that are using music as a part of their daily routine. When we do music with young kids, every area of their brain lights up. It’s one of the most powerful teaching tools that we have. So focusing on a lot of the social games and the fun, interactive things that I can only do with my mum and dad. The peekaboo, the tickle games, the I’m gonna get you, that’s where we get the most bang for our buck when we’re working on communication and it starts really, really young.

Helen Thompson: I love the music one, music is an amazing tool!

Jill Urbane: So powerful. That’s why preschool teachers use it all the time. They know!

Helen Thompson: Yeah I actually did a podcast with somebody about the music, that was very interesting.

Jill Urbane: oh. It’s so amazing for the brain.

Helen Thompson: So if, if anybody wanted to get in touch with you, how would they go about doing that?

Jill Urbane: I have a resource page that they can go to on my website, which is the mentor mom and I have a checklist that has those foundational language skills that I mentioned, as well as many other language program resources, including a program that I have for parents at home that they can do online that will teach them everything that they need to get their little ones from no words to sentences.

Helen Thompson: Jill, that sounds fantastic. I think the more parents that follow and do what you do, I think will give them a big headstart in their lives for their babies and toddlers. So thank you for being here.

Jill Urbane: Well, thank you so much for having me. It was a joy talking to you.

Helen Thompson: Wow, Jill certainly shared many, many great tips, and I found what she had to say about the 5 pre-language skills that need to be in place before words are going to start coming fascinating. It’s also important as Jill outlined to realize that for your little one, to acquire skills, you need to ensure they learn the sub skills first. So please ensure that they are ready and have the required foundation first.

I’ve included links to Jill’s website, her foundational language skills checklist, and other resources, which she mentioned during our chat in the show notes, which can be found at

I also share each episode on First Time Mum’s Chat Instagram page, and you’ll hear me chatting live with folks I’ve interviewed from time to time. Please support me by following me and I look forward to meeting you during one of my lives.

Next week I’m chatting with Homeopath, Eugenie Kruger, who empowers families with the knowledge of using homeopathy for their home, to help treat various acute and first aid situations. We’ll be talking about homeopathic remedies for ailments, including teething, colic, reflux, constipation and ear infections.

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