The Unique Speech Needs of Children in Poverty An SLP who works with children in poverty shares insights based on her own similar childhood. School Matters
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School Matters  |   March 01, 2017
The Unique Speech Needs of Children in Poverty
Author Notes
  • Phuong Lien Palafox, MS, CCC-SLP, is a bilingual speech-language pathologist at Bilinguistics, a private practice in Austin, Texas. She focuses on service-delivery models, literacy-based interventions, students from diverse backgrounds, and social skills for children with autism. She’s an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 14, Cultural and Linguistic Diversity; and 16, School-Based Issues. phuong.palafox@bilinguistics.com
    Phuong Lien Palafox, MS, CCC-SLP, is a bilingual speech-language pathologist at Bilinguistics, a private practice in Austin, Texas. She focuses on service-delivery models, literacy-based interventions, students from diverse backgrounds, and social skills for children with autism. She’s an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 14, Cultural and Linguistic Diversity; and 16, School-Based Issues. phuong.palafox@bilinguistics.com×
Article Information
Development / School-Based Settings / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / School Matters
School Matters   |   March 01, 2017
The Unique Speech Needs of Children in Poverty
The ASHA Leader, March 2017, Vol. 22, 30-31. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.22032017.30
The ASHA Leader, March 2017, Vol. 22, 30-31. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.22032017.30
I grew up in a two-bedroom mobile home with four other people. Bá worked two full-time jobs, and Mamá sewed 10 hours a day. Poverty—personally and professionally—resonates deeply with me. This experience with poverty has helped me to better understand and work more effectively with students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
My goal is to share some of what I’ve learned and offer some practical strategies for working with these children. I address this complex topic with great caution. It’s easy to stereotype, and not everyone living in poverty is equally affected. It is helpful for us as service providers to understand potentially harmful effects, so we can identify when poverty is influencing our evaluation results and intervention progress.
First, the facts:
  • What is poverty? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a family of four lives in poverty if the family’s annual income is less than $24,257.

  • Who is most affected by poverty? The Children’s Defense Fund says the poorest are children of color younger than 6. As of 2015, this includes more than 14.5 million—or one in five—children.

Developmental differences
The brain may develop differently among children from high-, middle- and low-income families. Cognitive functions affected by poverty include working memory, impulse regulation and language skills. When coupled with chronic stressors, the ability to cope may also be compromised.
Long-term poverty can affect emotional development. Jensen’s Emotional Keyboard Model helps us understand which emotional skills—such as anger and surprise—get hardwired into all of us and which ones must be explicitly taught. Often, I see schools expecting skills, like cooperation and patience, that require direct teaching.
Poverty can also negatively impact language development, reading and school performance. Children from limited-language environments hear only the most commonly occurring words. Their receptive vocabularies can be fewer than 5,000 words, while children from higher-income homes understand up to 20,000 words. Prior to kindergarten, children in poverty have been exposed to an average of 25 hours reading at home, as opposed to 1,000 hours of reading in language-rich homes. This disparity puts children from low socioeconomic backgrounds at an academic disadvantage.
Fortunately, the brain is an elastic organ that continually responds to input. Speech-language pathologists—and other service providers—can use a number of strategies when working with these students.
Social and behavioral strategies
  • Create a positive, high-achieving environment. At the end of each session, for example, ask students to chant, “I’m smart. I’ve got a good heart. I worked hard. I had fun!”

  • Share decisions and give students a choice. “For this next month, would you like to read ‘A Chair for My Mother’ or ‘Henry’s Freedom Box’?”

  • Use inclusive words like “our”: “How should we decorate our bulletin board?”

  • Thank and praise students for big and small accomplishments: “I heard your beginning /r/ sound. You worked hard.”

  • Work on problem-solving skills in the classroom: “So, we read that Jeremy wants those shoes. How will he convince his grandma to buy them?”

Children from limited-language environments hear only the most commonly occurring words. Their receptive vocabularies can be fewer than 5,000 words, while children from higher-income homes understand up to 20,000 words.

Treatment strategies
  • Use brain-based strategies to deliberately engage the brain and maximize learning. For example, use of gestures can increase memory threefold.

  • Use explicit step-by-step expectations: “First, we read. Then, we’ll act out the story!”

  • Children may not have access to technology, so use it in sessions. My students Skyped with an NFL football coach.

  • Make connections by basing lessons on topics familiar to your students.

  • Share speech, language and literacy goals with students.

  • Get parents involved through shared goal-setting and simple strategies they can try at home.

  • If caregivers struggle with literacy, send home wordless books so adults and children can discuss them together. My favorite wordless books include “Tuesday” and “The Arrival.”

  • Text parents short videos. Show how a session looks and sounds.

We can use our knowledge of communication to give a massive boost to children from all walks of life.
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March 2017
Volume 22, Issue 3