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Developing Communication Strategies for Children

This post was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Expression, the Magazine for Alumni and Friends of Emerson College.


For many children diagnosed with hearing loss, autism, or Down syndrome, understanding what others are saying, or expressing what one wants or feels, can be difficult.

If, for instance, such a child wants something to drink, he or she may point to a milk carton or open the refrigerator, rather than use words. These children can have trouble developing language skills or often fail to understand nonverbal communication such as facial expressions.

Megan Roberts, MS ’05, is a communication sciences and disorders researcher who is examining communication interventions that families can use to help their children overcome language delays—whether due to autism, Down syndrome, or hearing loss.

An assistant professor in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University, Roberts uses a family-centered approach to help young children with language delays—an approach she learned during graduate studies at Emerson from David Luterman, professor emeritus of the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department (CSD).

Sandra Cohn Thau, the CSD’s director of clinical education and graduate program director, explained, “The notion of family-centered therapy was enthusiastically endorsed by David Luterman. It’s the approach we use here in our clinic and teach our students. As a clinician, you’re not only treating the client, but also the family.”

Roberts calls such an approach “critical” to success. “With young children—birth to 3—working with the parents empowers them to use language-facilitation techniques with their child,” said Roberts. “Family involvement is key.”

Roberts has published several papers, in conjunction with Dr. Ann Kaiser at Vanderbilt University, that examine the effects of including parents in early language intervention.

“While it’s possible that a child may not be able to conduct an entire conversation, he or she can express needs, wants, and emotions,” said Roberts.

The most effective early communication interventions include teaching parents to use language-facilitation strategies, such as responding to their child’s communicative attempts.

Roberts recalls working with a child who had a severe receptive language delay. “Saying words and understanding words was difficult. Over three to four months, I taught the mom to use several language-facilitation techniques, responding each time he communicated—speaking at his level, and not too far ahead—using two-word sentences. We set up the environment to encourage him to communicate. At mealtime, if he requested more of something, she would prompt him to say milk, not to reach or grunt. He learned, over time, the power of words and how to get responses to his intent.”

Meet Megan Roberts, MS ’05, a researcher who develops communication strategies for children.

Meet Megan Roberts, MS ’05, a researcher who develops communication strategies for children.

A Love of Language

Having a mother who was a pediatric physical therapist, Roberts’s interest in health science was piqued early. Then she went on to study French and Spanish in high school, concentrating in Spanish in college. “I tied my love of children with my love of language and added my love of statistics. I love understanding why things happen, and data can tell us a lot.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Rochester, Roberts had no background in communication science. So she chose Emerson for her graduate studies because the College offers an intensive summer program designed to get students such as herself “up to speed” on the prerequisites. Once she began the graduate program, “I was with a cohort of some of the most brilliant people with whom I’ve had the opportunity to work,” she said. “We all stuck together.”

After earning a master’s degree at Emerson, Roberts received a PhD in education and human development from Vanderbilt University.

Roberts is currently the principal investigator of a research study funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health. Her work has also been funded by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Today, Roberts says she has “the best job on Earth. I get to teach the next generation of clinicians what it looks like to be a good speech pathologist.”

Roberts would like to see the communication disorders field “minimize the gap between research and practice. We need to empower our master’s students to use evidence from research articles from the very beginning of their careers, and for those out in the field to continue to strive to understand what the current best standard is.”

And it doesn’t hurt, Roberts said, that “I get to play with the kids using Play-Doh and then get to follow up with research.”