Before three-year-old Aimee Stoppard gained a place at an I CAN early years centre, her notes were full of incidents of disruptive behaviour. Since then, Aimee has blossomed into a different child and is now described by her teacher as warm and outgoing, with a lovely personality.
This transformation is a source of great joy to Aimee's parents and teachers and is testimony to the success of the I CAN approach to dealing with speech and language difficulties.
Aimee succeeded in gaining a place on the programme in the nursery at Buckland Infants School in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, at the beginning of last year because her speech problems were severe.
'If Aimee hadn't attended the I CAN centre I don't believe she would have progressed,' says her mother, Rebecca. 'She had already had extensive speech therapy but still made hardly any noises at all. She went into the unit with just three words and a history of very naughty behaviour.'
Like many children with speech and language difficulties, Aimee's frustration and sense of isolation were the result of an inability to participate in a world totally reliant on language. I CAN aims to address this by supporting children in early years centres on a one-to-one basis while also allowing them to work alongside their peers.
The innovative programme is based on the I CAN Early Years Accreditation scheme, which is funded by the Department for Education and Skills and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. Its effectiveness was recently measured by a study carried out by City University and the Institute of Education at London University, which revealed that children attending these centres made significantly greater progress than those receiving other types of support routinely available to pre-school children.
According to Vee McKinlay, who teaches in the unit at Buckland, the approach is special because it combines the support of a teacher, nursery nurse and speech therapist to provide all-round provision within a mainstream nursery setting.
'Within the main nursery we have Star Classrooms where children on the scheme come for one-to-one attention,' says Vee. 'They are also entitled to participate in all the curriculum activities and we are able to act as an interpreter for these, so they can take part along with the other children.'
Sessions in the Star Classrooms focus on language, listening and social skills and are fun-based activities which usually last for no longer than ten minutes at a time. Games involve lots of role-play, interaction and shouting and allow children to take risks within a secure environment.
One-to-one attention tends to be geared to either speech therapy or adapting the curriculum to suit a particular child's needs. 'There are lots of ways you can enhance a child's understanding of what an adult is saying, either by signing or with props and pictures,' Vee says. 'These children are bright, but they can't access information through use of language.'
She emphasises the importance of children making friends and having a good time in the nursery: 'Other children do not tend to notice that one of their friends may have a speech difficulty. They accept how they are in a non-critical way, and everyone is routinely used to using signage.'
Absolutely central to the process is building self-esteem and confidence.
'If a child believes it can be successful, then it will be successful,'
says Vee. 'The worst thing is when children unconsciously give up on the world because they can neither understand it nor make it understand them.
These children need to constantly be reminded how clever they are.'
The aim of I CAN is to get steady results in the early years so that children can progress smoothly to infant school. They tend to improve rapidly when they first enter the centre, but further improvement can take time and hard work.
'Parents' participation is extremely important in helping the therapy achieve its full potential. They are involved every step of the way,' says Vee. And Aimee's mother believes that I CAN is successful because it addresses speech problems at a crucial stage in a child's development. 'It is so important to look at putting things right in the pre-school stage, so a child with difficulties has every chance of progressing through the education system in a normal way,' she says.
The fact that Aimee is now looking forward to entering the reception year in September as a fully-fledged pupil shows how the scheme succeeds. NW
* I CAN, tel: 0845 225 4071, website www.ican.org.uk.
* To register for I CAN's Chatterbox Challenge 2004 and raise money for the charity, phone 0870 35 000 95.
* For more information about speech, language and communication difficulties in children see www.talkingpoint.org.uk.