Christine Kraeleman is grateful that all her four-year-old son Max needed was a few months of speech therapy and ongoing home exercises to get him past his speech delays. She knows how long the wait lists are for B.C. children needing support to help them catch up in their development, and that thousands of children around the province are still waiting for any service at all.
But that didn’t make Max’s nine-month wait for speech therapy any easier on the Kraeleman family. That’s a long time to worry, and a waste of precious time in the magical first five years of a child’s life, when the young brain responds rapidly to intervention therapies.
“Even a little sheet of exercises that we could do while waiting would have been helpful,” the Fort St. John mother says now. “I’d been through speech therapy myself as a child for the same thing that Max, so that was helpful in keeping my stress down during the wait. But it’s frustrating when it’s your first child and you don’t know what’s going on.”
Both decades of research and the lived experiences of families of children receiving therapies and other interventions in the early years have confirmed the importance of early intervention. Here’s what the World Health Organization has to say about providing development supports in those critical years from age zero to five – supports that WHO views as essential to achieving the United Nations 2030 Millenium Goals:
Early childhood development is considered to be the most important phase in life that determines the quality of health, well-being, learning and behaviour across the life span. It is a period of great opportunity, but also of great vulnerability to negative influences and constitutes a unique phase for capitalizing on developmental forces to prevent or minimize disabilities and potential secondary conditions…Conclusive evidence shows that with early and appropriate interventions that address the risk factors, [it’s possible to modify] growth, cognitive and social-emotional development in ways which improve health, well-being, and competence in the long-term.
But “despite the strength of the evidence for the greater effectiveness of investing in the early years,” countries have been slow to see this vital work as an investment in their country’s future. Here in B.C., fundamental intervention services such as speech therapy and occupational therapy have not seen a funding increase since 2009, even while the population – and therefore the number of children needing supports - has grown by almost seven per cent since then.
Max finally started receiving weekly speech therapy last October, and later began going twice a week. His family also did at-home exercises with him. By February, he was speaking so much better that he was discharged from therapy, though he and his family are continuing the at-home exercises.
“He has come along quite well,” says Christine. “Before, he was so frustrated when I couldn’t understand him. Now, he knows what he has to work on. I still have to stop him sometimes to get him to pronounce his Ks, an S, his Ts. But he is ready for kindergarten now.”
Christine acknowledges that it’s a bit more challenging for the family now that it’s all up to them to work with Max on his speech, rather than also having the support of a therapist. But probably anyone with experience in trying to teach or coach their own child knows that, laughs Christine. “It’s always easier to say no to Mom!”
Multi-service child development centres like the one in Fort St. John help families link into a variety of services in the same location. In Max’s case, he was already attending the Child Development Centre preschool – it was his preschool teacher who first referred him for speech therapy when he was three. That meant that he could do his hour of speech therapy while attending preschool, easing what can often be a significant scheduling burden for working families.
“It’s great to have the preschool right there at the centre,” says Christine. “They have everything when it comes to supporting the kids receiving services.”
While the nine-month wait for services was difficult, Christine feels fortunate that Max received any services at all before he turned five and aged out of Early Childhood Development support. She knows of other families that haven’t been so lucky.
“My nephew, he’s almost four and doesn’t talk at all. He has been referred for services by three different professionals, but he’s still waiting.”