Whenever a child is not meeting our expectations, it’s easy to assume it’s a behavior or he is simply refusing to do what we are asking. It’s easy to think they are being “stubborn” or “lazy.” What if we reframed this? What if we simply acknowledged that if they could, they would, and it’s our job to support them along the way.
Take something such as eating. Even before food enters our mouths, we need to process all of the smells and sights of different foods. This can be hard if our sensory systems are over or under responsive. Eating is actually quite complex. When we eat, we need to open our mouths just wide enough to take a bite of that particular food (jaw grading), bite and tear off a piece, use our tongue to move the food to our back teeth for chewing (lateralization), chew with just the right amount of force while also using our cheeks and tongue to help to break down the food, and collect the food into a soft ball in the middle of our tongue (bolus) to get it ready for swallowing. That’s a lot of steps! In fact, Marshalla (2008) cited 22 different muscles needed to prepare food for a swallow! Even different types of foods and textures require different oral motor skills. Factors such as the right chair and postural stability can even impact a child’s ability to use the muscles of their mouth.
When kiddos have difficulty with any of these areas, eating can be hard. Whether there is a feeding/oral motor disorder that requires the help of a Feeding Specialist or your little one just needs practice, we want to be mindful of meeting them where they are. When we think, “If they would, they could,” we start to think of ways to help them develop their skills.
We can also think about talking. It seems easy to us, but talking is hard work! There are about 100 muscles of the chest, neck, jaw, tongue and lips at play. It involves coordination of the respiratory (breathing), phonation (vocal folds), articulatory (parts of the mouth that shape speech) and resonation (airflow) systems. Each word or short phrase is accompanied by its own pattern of muscular movement. We need to think about what we want to say, plan those motor movements, and execute them with the right sequence and timing to say it! That is why reminding a kiddo, to “use their words,” doesn’t always work.
If we think in terms of, “If he could, he would,” we start thinking about ways to support a little one’s communication. Can we give them a choice? Can we model the word so they know what we are expecting? If they are upset, can we help them get their little body regulated first?
Skill development isn’t linear. Sometimes kiddos progress in one area and take a step backwards in another. Sometimes they have bad days. Sometimes they don’t feel well or are just plain tired. If we reframe to, “If they could they could” we can start to focus on how to best help them at this moment in time.
When we think, “If they could, they would,” we take the blame away. We acknowledge that a child is doing the best they can on this day. It doesn’t mean removing expectations. It means building a bridge to help them experience success. We can set the “just right challenge” while offering the right amount of support, Slowly, they will build confidence and learn they can do it independently. The best part is, it will be at just the right pace for them!
Brooke Andrews, M.A. CCC-SLP/COM is owner of The Speech Dynamic and specializes in providing speech, language, and feeding therapy in Houston, TX.