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Karen Davies and colleagues are convinced by the case for programmes combining language development in young children with support for adult learning but wonder if the profession is ready to campaign for this extended role?


Dear Avril, How can we make a difference to our children if we feel uncomfortable with ourselves and with our children? How can we overcome our own feelings of failure if school taught us about failure? How can we enjoy communication if we feel tense and downhearted? The reality is that many parents feel this way - and our experience suggests speech and language therapists ignore it at their peril. Speech and language workers in the Sure Start Team in Partington and Carrington in Manchester took up the challenge of making a real difference for parents, as well as children. By turning more traditional objectives upside down, the speech and language workers aimed to support a group of parents to develop their own confidence and skills in communicating. This was achieved in partnership with another government-funded initiative called Early Start that was taking place across the whole borough of Trafford as part of the work of Family Learning. Parents and children participated in a short course that aimed to revive an interest in learning for the adults and improve interaction between parents and their children. The Basic Skills Agencys Early Start programme provided a number of specific aims that had to be fulfilled. These had to be met using a flexible approach that contributed to parents own learning as much as the childrens. The speech and language therapist focused on three key objectives: 1. to give parents an understanding of the kind of interaction that helps their children to explore, communicate and understand the world 2. to provide relevant activities for babies and young children to extend their communication skills 3. to create opportunities for parents to enhance their own language and literacy skills. How could a programme combine language development in small children with supporting adult learning and development? Partnership with parents is a routine part of a therapists role, with encouraging communication between parents and children an essential aim in many of our intervention programmes. However, when we encounter the parent who has significant communication difficulties themselves, we often accept that the parents are doing their best and hurriedly recommend a nursery placement to provide compensatory support for language development. Early Start aimed to help parents discover the pleasure of communication with each other, so creating a springboard for positive communication with their own children. The focus of the learning was communication, using Hanens You Make the Difference (Manolson et al, 1995) as the structure for the programme. Hands-on learning took place with each other, and with their children, enabling a journey of discovery for a group of uncertain and inhibited parents. Details of the programme were well planned. The speech and language workers were confident and the support was well organised, but the keys to success could not have been predicted. Firstly, the families were carefully chosen and nurtured. A familiar Sure Start worker encouraged and facilitated parents to participate. Secondly, the format was relaxed and welcoming, with an informal lunch forming a crucial part of the session. Every family received a toy that linked directly with the activities discussed in the workshop. The speech and language workers quickly recognised that the parents were reluctant communicators, but gradually they responded to the positive encouragement of the tutors and began to warm to the natural communication that they could share with their children. This kind of experience is irresistible and, over the weeks, they began to enjoy each others company. The formal evaluation was positive, but the more compelling evidence came from the comments that parents made. Ive learnt to listen to my child more and Ive learnt how to connect with my children are powerful endorsements of a programme that aimed to nurture parents as well as children. What kind of message would these parents have for those of us responsible for planning services?

Beyond Sure Start

The success of the programme was dependent on skilled practitioners taking advantage of opportunities arising from unlikely sources. Family Learning has an imperative to promote adult learning, but how refreshing to recognise learning as a broad concept to encompass communication, language and interaction in the family. This may be the most valuable learning a parent ever has an opportunity to do, leading to greater confidence in participating in their local community as well as within their family. Practitioners saw opportunities and modified agendas, taking advantage of skills and resources available through two high profile initiatives, Sure Start and Family Learning. The process of extending this beyond a small, targeted area requires even greater opportunism, together with the tireless enthusiasm of practitioners prepared to experiment and move beyond the confines of Sure Start. This must be the challenge that every Sure Start programme embraces, leading the way for other areas to support children and their families in providing creative and responsive services. This requires an approach that does not rely on example only but active participation in initiatives outside the usual Sure Start boundaries. I wonder if the speech and language therapy profession has the energy or the inclination to campaign for this extended role? In our moments of doubt we need to remind ourselves of the parents we have worked with, and the differences they have experienced as they have learnt to communicate. Making the difference is so compelling that we must find ways of extending this essential work. Karen Davies, Terrie Murphy & Sarah Tweedle Speech and Language Therapy Department Trafford Healthcare NHS Trust

Manolson, A., Ward, S. & Dodington, N. (1995) You Make the Difference In Helping Your Child Learn. The Hanen Centre: Toronto. Further information Early Start (Basic Skills Agency), see or Family Learning, see familylearning/ familylearningindex.htm Sure Start, see

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