By Dr. Judy Montgomery, CCC-SLP, Professor, Chapman University

In this book, Jimmy talks about experiences related to a speech difficulty that are all too common in the early school years.  He is just learning to be a “talker” like those more accomplished speakers around him, but his fine motor system is still immature and he is still finding his way through the 44 sounds of speech (phonemes) we talked about last time. Sometimes he uses a speech sound in the wrong place in a word. Children find that this substitution of one sound for another is unexpected or amusing.  They may tease.

As a result of this teasing, school has become a fearful place for Jimmy.  It should be a happy place full of laughter and learning with his new friends.  But there are dark clouds and big doors ahead in Jimmy’s walk to school. His family has always understood him and it is safe there. His mom and his dog, Blackie, love him without limits.  Why is it so uncomfortable at school? After all, he has so much to talk about!

First of all, the children in his classroom are all the same age and with comparable skills and similar behaviors. They all recently enjoyed their position in their families as  “the only 5 year old” (unless they were twins).  Perhaps there were younger children who looked to them for help, or older siblings who guided them, or both.  And of course, there was at least one adult  (mom, dad, grandparent, etc.) who provided the care.  Now in school, this has changed. There is one adult in charge, but also over 20 children their age who want that person’s undivided attention.   They are all competing with each other for the teacher’s notice and the assistance they need to be successful and appreciated.

When one or more of those competing children is different in some small way, teasing arises.  “You can’t open your lunch box by yourself?  I can.”  “He is the slowest runner.”    “She cries at recess.”  “He can’t draw a triangle shape.”  “He talks funny.”  Teasing words are said in jest, but they hurt.  Children on the wrong end of the taunting words sense they might not be exactly like everyone else at that moment, and feel vulnerable.

Often the teasing or snickering is gentle in nature.  Other times it is sharp and hurtful. Either way, children are wounded, with little opportunity to defend themselves.  It is especially hurtful when they cannot lash back with more words – the very words that were just ridiculed!  No wonder Jimmy senses dark clouds.  Being teased is sad and unnecessary for young children who have so many complicated tasks to learn in school, plus a wide variety of gifts and talents that are not easily discernable by fellow first graders.

Today, we call these episodes bullying.  As we get older, the taunting can increase or get more personal. Jimmy senses it as soon as he goes to school.  What can we do about it? As the story continues, we will see that many things will help Jimmy’s situation.  Here are a few of them:

1.  He will always have his safe places at home and with most school friends.  One, or few children, tease – not everyone. It just feels like it is everyone. 
2.  He can count on matter-of-fact statements and positive confidence building from his mom each day.  She is his champion.
3.  His teacher is his friend, too and will intervene anytime she hears something hurtful in the classroom. She believes in Jimmy and recognizes his many gifts. 
4.  Jimmy’s speech difficulty is substituting one speech sound for another one – this is fairly common and actually good news!  It means he can produce the sounds he needs; now he has to learn how to put them in the right place in his words. 
5.  Speech is a fine motor and timing task.  His fine motor skills are maturing rapidly at his age, so he is improving his muscle timing. Five year olds frequently make significant changes in speech sound production at this time.   
6.  If the speech changes do not come fast enough to please Jimmy’s family and teacher, a speech language pathologist at this school knows just what to do!  Using exercises and practice that feels like playing games, Jimmy will learn how to produce the speech sounds he lacks.

Next time, we will join a speech session and learn how children improve their speech skills and have fun.

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