A LEAP Forward

Campus preschool celebrates 20 years of helping children with speech and language delays

At nearly 3 years old, Stefano Senserini would point to a cupboard when he was hungry. When he wanted his mom’s attention, he’d grab her chin. And on the playground, he’d visibly shrink from chattering children.

“He was a very frustrated little person,” says his mother, Stephanie Tadlock M.A. ’05. “He couldn’t make the words come out.”

He was diagnosed with apraxia, meaning he had trouble putting sounds and syllables together to form words. The specialist recommended LEAP, the Language-Learning Early-Advantage Program in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences. Two years later, Stefano has enrolled in a local school with his peers, another of the many success stories in the LEAP Preschool, marking its 20th anniversary this year.

Department Chair Nan Ratner started the program after struggling to find more intensive help for her son, who also had speech and language delays. His success after meeting a few hours a week with two other late-talking boys encouraged her to try the model on a larger scale.

Children with speech and language delays may need to hear a word 10 more times than a typical child to understand it. LEAP has them act out stories through dramatic play, visit museums for hands-on experiences and more, as well as individualize lesson plans to cater to each child’s interests, whether it’s firefighting (above) or fishing.

Graduate students help develop lesson plans and conduct individual speech and language therapy sessions, and undergraduates shadow the preschoolers, so there’s usually a one-to-one ratio in the classroom.

Parents are invited to observe through one-way mirrors.

“You see your child in a new light,” says S. Joyce, whose son, E.J., is in his first year at LEAP. “Kids with speech delays can’t always tell you about their day.”

The program is overwhelmingly male—some years, there are no girls at all—because 75 percent of speech and language disorders occur in boys.

“It’s a brain-based problem, but it’s very poorly understood,” Ratner says. There’s sometimes a family connection, indicating it might be hereditary. With more research, the hope is to start diagnosing babies at 1 year old for earlier interventions.

Ratner and Handy also want to expand the program to create a separate class for children on the autism spectrum, but are constrained by their budget and physical space.

“I wish they had the facilities and capacity to help more children,” Tadlock says. “It changed my life and my son’s life. When Stefano began, he had, literally, just a handful of words. Now, I can have a conversation with him.”



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