Preschool speech

Kacy O’Connell, left, and Cambree Allen, middle, both 4-year-old preschoolers at Northeast Nodaway, try out the sensory hallway in September. Preschool teacher Marcy Sobotka said she favors expanding the program to include 3-year-olds.

RAVENWOOD, Mo. — The preschool teacher at Northeast Nodaway has recommended the district look at expanding its early childhood program to include 3-year-olds to address what she says is a widespread trend of declining language skills in first-time pre-K students.

“In a class of 15, 14 were kind of a concern when it came to speech and language,” said Marcy Sobotka, Northeast Nodaway’s preschool teacher, at a school board meeting earlier this month.

Northeast Nodaway, like most of the school-based preschool programs in the county, admits children starting at age 4. By then, she told the board, children could already be behind.

Currently, programs like Parents as Teachers and the federal Head Start can provide early childhood education, but for families living out in the county, those options aren’t always viable.

“Our Parents as Teachers do a wonderful job,” Sobotka said, “but I’m afraid it might not be enough if that’s going to be our norm, if that’s what we’re going to be receiving as far as kids coming into our program.”

An expanded preschool option would allow a more methodical ramp-up in social skills until entry into kindergarten, she said.

The Maryville Early Childhood Center does accept 3-year-olds and tailors its program similarly.

“Language and social skill development are two areas we work on with all of our students who come to school as preschool is often times their first experience working with other children in a more structured environment,” said Michelle McCollum, MECC director, in an email. “There has been a lot of research done to support why early education and intervention are important. We find that early intervention and a strong preschool experience is very beneficial for our students as they move on to kindergarten.”

Sobotka said that she started paying attention to the wider trend during a conversation with a representative from a phonics program vendor that covers multiple states in the Midwest.

“When I mentioned my concern with speech and language, she told me that in her area, she said I was the 7th teacher to tell her the same concerns,” Sobotka said in an email. “So in my opinion, yes I feel that social and communication skills are lacking with our society.”

The cause? Sobotka chalks it up to something simple.

“In my opinion, I think that’s only going to get worse,” Sobotka told the board. “People just aren’t talking anymore.”

Predictably, that could be due to the ubiquity of electronic diversions for both children and adults.

“Think about the things our world has to offer — social media, video games, phones with games, etc.,” Sobotka said in an interview initiated over email. “Those are all great opportunities and in some cases learning tools. However, most of the time they can all be completed without actual verbal communication.”

An estimate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 2018 that American parents with children under the age of 6 spent an average of 4 minutes per day reading to their child.

“Simply reading a book to a child, touching the pictures, describing what you see, allows them to hear and connect pictures and text with sounds,” Sobotka said. “While it’s nice to offer books and such on iPads and tablets, it is so much more beneficial to actually read to a child.”

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