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Tots Talking: An Inclusive Project to Help Those Who Need it

Tots Talking is one of I CAN’s innovative programmes, designed to help children from all backgrounds with a speech, language and communication need (SLCN) access the support they require. Speech and Language Advisor Louisa Reeves outlines the project in more detail, the issues its tackling and why it’s needed.


Anyone who works with children and families will know the frustration of putting on courses and offering appointments which just aren’t taken up. Often, we tell ourselves that the children who need our support the most are the ones not getting access to it. I was struck when hearing Jean Gross, Communication Champion, referring to children as ‘not yet reached’ rather than ‘hard to reach’. That thinking has informed one of I CAN’s most recent projects; Tots Talking.

The challenge was to develop an intervention for 2-year olds who were at risk of delayed language development living in an area of disadvantage. Our funders, Big Lottery, have a focus on community-led projects but if the community didn’t see there was a problem how could we reach them? Then we thought, maybe we could ask them!

Those of you who work in the world of speech, language and communication will know the phrase ‘contingent language’. It’s had other names over the years but basically, it’s the way in which adults, in this case parents and carers, adapt their communicative style for their baby or young child.

Following the child’s lead, sharing their interest, adding on and repeating words and phrases are all examples of contingent language. Research shows us that babies and children who are exposed to more contingent language go on to develop better language skills themselves. Children who start nursery with good language skills are more likely to go on to do better academically as well as socially.

However, we also know that there is a social gradient in terms of the use of contingent language and that statistically people from lower SES groups talk less with their children than those from higher SES groups. This is a fundamental difference in parenting.

It’s not making a value judgement on the quality of parenting, in fact as one local community member put it “they are dead tight them rich people because they make their kids ask for things and we just give them what they want”. So, ‘how to get people to change the way they communicate with their children?’ was our first question. The only way to answer it was to ask the people we wanted to reach.

To make something truly accessible for the group of people you are aiming at, you need to include them right from the start in designing and developing the finished product. In Tots Talking we worked with Children Centre staff and invited parents and carers who wouldn’t typically come along to a group or engage in a service. Our co-production group included some young mums, people with mental health problems, learning difficulties and families who were known to social services.

To say I have learned a lot from them would be an understatement. We make a lot of assumptions in our work and almost all of mine were turned on their heads.

I learned that not everyone thinks joining a group to make new friends is an incentive. I also learned that community pressures mitigate against talking to your baby or child in public. One parent shared how she was considered ‘posh’ because she read to her 3-month-old baby, another that she wouldn’t talk to her toddler on the bus because people would think she was odd.

To make our course truly accessible we needed to make sure it included elements which were useful to parents. This would give them new ways to behave, new learning and facts to push back against their community, sometimes even partners and grandparents.

Tots Talking now contains elements selected by the co-production group. These elements have been tested and approved by other parents in similar communities who have found them useful and helpful in widening their knowledge and in changing their attitudes and behaviours. I won’t try and claim it’s solved the problem of people not turning up but we are working on it and learning all the time.

Watch out for more information about Tots Talking as we take it to pilot from January 2019.

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