speech and language therapy

Interview: Stefanie Cortina - Pediatric Speech Language Pathologist

We had the pleasure of siting down with Stefanie Cortina, Pediatric Speech Language Pathologist and founder of Speech.Play.Learn 


All Circles: Speech and language pathology is pretty vast and an often misunderstood field. What is your area of focus and what would a typical day look like for you?

Stefanie: I'm a pediatric speech language pathologist, so what that means is I primarily focus my practice on treating, managing, and assessing children between the ages of zero to 18 years. In my practice right now, we do see a mix of different types of children with different types of delays or disorders. We work with school aged children or with the childcare facilities like daycares.

So it's pretty vast because I do work in the private sector and we kind of get whatever comes through our door and we try to do the best at seeing everyone we possibly can within our scope. So we can see early language learners just in the play stage or the pre-linguistic stages, and we can see 18 year olds working on social communication, so pretty broad.

AC: How do you use play in your speech and language therapy?

S: So I'll definitely say this for me, especially right now, I'm working primarily with preschool and early school age learners and play for me is everything - it's essential. It is the basis of my therapy.

I'm a strong believer and follow a play based approach. It is crucial to a child's development. It contributes to their cognitive, their social, physical, and emotional wellbeing. And it really is the easiest way for a child to learn, because this is where we can truly follow their interests.

We can see how they best interact with their environment. And this helps us guide our therapy because we then go get something that's really interesting and motivating to them and apply our strategies or our tools and our techniques to develop their speech and or language. 

AC: What are some of your favourite tips you like sharing with parents about early language development that they could use at home? 

S: So I think what I learned as a therapist, working with many different parents over time is that they actually don't like being given the traditional homework.

Why? Because everyone’s lives are busy and parents are working sometimes multiple jobs. They have multiple children. And so they don't want to feel like we're setting them up to fail and I don't like setting my clients up to fail. My best at home advice is try to make implementing strategies and techniques as automatic as possible into daily routines.

So whether that be minimizing the screen time and having a conversation with your child about their day, whether that's going about daily routines labeling or describing what they're doing, that is super meaningful and purposeful for a child because they're learning through daily life.

If they're using one or two words, give them three, or four more. And have fun with it, really create a positive and engaging learning environment for your child.

"The minute I teach him something or I show him something and he develops something through play, and then he implements, it's just so, so rewarding." 

AC: Does your therapy look any different now as a mother of a one year old? 

S:  It's not easy. You know, here I am giving all these strategies and do this. It's so easy to make it automatic and bring it into your daily life. And there I am with a newborn and I'm like, I just want to keep this thing alive.I just need to care for this child and love them. And what else can I do?

And then when I finally have a minute to myself and have a chance to think about speech and language I realize I love this stuff, I wonder to myself how I can make parenting fun with my speech and language approach. And that's exactly what I started doing. I talk to him constantly, and playing together is the thing we do the most, because I really see how his mind starts working and get to learn what his interests are. When we play, that's when I bring in those strategies and I describe the things that he's doing, or I label the actions or the words that are around him. And obviously reading is something else we love doing together.

It's really been so rewarding and I think I feel so grateful that I have this knowledge and these tools in my back pocket to implement in my parenting. I do appreciate the value of what we do even more because I see the effects.

The minute I teach him something or I show him something and he develops something through play, and then he implements, it's just so, so rewarding. So now I could just imagine parents of the children that I treat when they finally go home and their kid is finally showing them something that they've been doing in therapy.

It's like, Oh, this is it. This is the moment that we've been waiting for. It's really nice to see that from both perspectives now. 

 "..the minute that you give the child the word for their action, it gives them that connection in their brain and says, "Oh, this is what my body's doing."" 

AC: Regarding active play at home, tell me some different opportunities where we can incorporate language development?

S: I think that finding things that are in our environment or using these open ended structures, like a climbing triangle are so inviting for kids.

The opportunity for language is so present. So for example, climbing a pikler triangle, you can just use words like "climb", "Let's go up, let's go down". You can give some encouragement and reinforcement, like "you're climbing", "I love the way you're climbing" or if a child is really young and they're deciding to stand it's "Oh, let's pull up."

So it's all these action words that are so crucial. And what it does is that the minute that you give the child the word for their action, it gives them that connection in their brain and says, Oh, this is what my body's doing. This is the word for it. So if their bodies physically in the moment climbing, and you're saying, you're climbing, they're associating that word to what they're doing.

So it's a wonderful time to expose them to these words. If they're a little older, you could even start hanging things off the pikler triangle for them to reach for and you're naming the items.  Oh, go get the silky scarves. And so he has to pull on them or he goes and grabs one and I say, Oh, you're reaching for the blue scarf. And so here I am not only connecting the action, but I'm naming some words, I'm getting him some nouns and some colors. So your language can grow as the child grows.

And with these toys and with these activity structures, it's there. It's a perfect opportunity to do that. 

AC: Could a helpful goal simply be volume of words that you're exposing your child to, or is that not maybe a helpful way of thinking about it? 

S: I will say that the more words and language you expose your child to the more that promotes language development - that is proven in the research and in our clinical practice. Now I want to be careful and say that it's not only the quantity, but it's also the quality of the exposure of the language we're giving them. If we're just giving them for examples, nouns, just the names of common items or labeling common items? Well, again, yes, children do tend to learn nouns first because they're so readily available in the environment. But we have to remember that even if we name 30 million nouns, if we're not labeling actions, or feelings, we are not engaging in or promoting reciprocal conversations with our child. Then it doesn't matter how many nouns they know, they're not using them functionally or purposefully or meaningfully in their environment, or to interact with their communication partner. So I will say that yes, it is about the amount of exposure, but it's also the quality of that exposure.

"You know, just making that effort with your child, getting down on their level and playing with them in this open ended way is truly invaluable."

AC: Any last thoughts or parting words of wisdom you'd like to share with us?

S: I think that an important thing to say again, as a parent and a professional is that there's no mistakes, you know, like I think people get so caught up in the perfect Instagram world that, Oh, look what she's doing with her kid. And look how many words she's exposing him to.

I think a more helpful posture is - let's do the best we can with the strategies that are available to us and just make it meaningful and not really get so caught up in the perfect idea of it.

You know, just making that effort with your child, getting down on their level and playing with them in this open ended way is truly invaluable.

So that's just my little send off. 

AC: Be sure to follow Stefanie on Instagram @speech.play.learn