Donella Rodriguez Laird photographed at her Woodbrook office. Make-up by Shenelle Escayg, photography by Mark Lyndersay

Originally published in Express Woman, May 23, 2017

I read this on one of my favourite blogs…

  • To learn, we go to school.
To feel better, we go to the doctor.
  • To maintain our car, we go to a mechanic.
  • To get our children to communicate, we go to the speech-language pathologist.

While there is some truth to all of these statements, there is also a lot more involved; the more complete statements should be:
To learn, we read books, go online, talk to mentors, and do assigned homework from a teacher.
To feel better, we eat well, exercise, get lots of rest and follow a doctor’s recommendations.
To maintain our car, we fill it with gas, drive with caution and follow the scheduled service.
To get our children to communicate, we can go to a speech-language pathologist who will do what? Work her magic with fairy dust? Fix my child? Make my child speak? What goes on behind that door, anyway?

I cannot speak for my colleagues, but when I graduated from university as a speech-language pathologist, I was NOT given fairy dust! I will say that if we have to help individuals learn to communicate, we can only seek the guidance of a speech-language pathologist.
Whether a child needs help learning to speak clearly or communicating with their loved ones more effectively, the first stop is often to the paediatrician for advice and referrals to a ‘specialist’.

Most often, I am the first point of contact and I am left with the emotional task of having to break the news to a family about a diagnosis that they may or may not have heard of.  In today’s world of technology options, sometimes parents refer to Doctor Google and this can often lead to increased anxiety and fear.

In my practice, I am a big advocate for allowing the parent to sit-in during the therapy sessions.  Within my new space I have even installed a one-way window where the parent could look on and not be seen by their child.  I also ensure to give parents brief feedback after a session and give advice on how to implement a given goal at home.

This is how the magic works…everyone would go their separate ways with a feeling of accomplishment as the necessary steps are being taken to help the child.
I am Hanen® certified which means I am specially trained to be able to teach caregivers.  I have done the More Than Words® and It Takes Two to Talk® — Hanen Programs® for Parents of Children with Language Delays and Disorders.  These Parent Programs are designed specifically for parents of young children (birth to 5 years of age) who have been identified as having a language delay.

In a small, personalized group setting, parents as well as anyone who interacts with the child (teachers, grandparents, babysitters, etc.)  learn practical strategies to help their children learn language naturally throughout their day together.  The Program teaches the caregiver, step-by-step, how to become their child’s most important language teacher.

The program shows how to…

  • Recognize your child’s stage and style of communication so that you know which steps to take next
  • Identify what motivates your child to interact with you so you’ll know how to get conversations started
  • Adjust everyday routines to help your child take turns and keep interactions going
  • Follow your child’s lead to build his confidence and encourage him to communicate
  • Add language to interactions with your child to help him understand language and then use it when he is ready
  • Tweak the way you play and read books with your child to help him learn language
  • Change the way you speak to your child so that he’ll understand and learn new words

Donella Rodriguez Laird photographed at her Woodbrook office. Make-up by Shenelle Escayg, photography by Mark Lyndersay. Click to enlarge.

When I first started my practice just shy of 13 years ago, my biggest challenge was how to best educate parents to be an active participant in the session, so that they may be more confident in following through with homework.  I pride myself on equipping the families I work with, with the necessary tools for stimulating language; keeping in mind the well-known proverb, ‘Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.

When a parent feels empowered to play and talk in a way that helps their child to do something new, they are much more likely to keep doing it at home. When parents are able to effectively carry new tools into their everyday lives, their child has endless opportunities to practice the new skill.  With practice comes confidence, and the opportunity to move forward.  I am not the one pedalling the bike, the parent is…I’m just the training wheels.

After demonstrating and modelling how a parent should communicate with a child in the comfort of their own home environment; I get a sense of fulfillment when they look at me with a relieved expression on their faces.  I believe I empower them. So much so, they come back to their follow-up therapy sessions and report how well they have made the necessary changes at home and they see first-hand what a difference it makes in their lives. Now THAT is what I call fairy dust!

When parents are willing to accept their child’s impairment, actively take part in their child’s follow-up therapy sessions, ask questions and practice as much as possible at home,
that is when you see the true super powers. I don’t need fairy dust after all!

The production of the Footsoldiers segment of the Lioness Project series, highlighting the experiences of 12 workers in the disability field, is supported by the Cause an Effect Organisation, the Massy Foundation and A Very Special Disabilities Forum.