Published on May 19th, 2015


A Chat With the 2015 Editor’s Award Winners

The annual SAC Editor’s Award recognizes the best paper published in the Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology each year. The 2015 recipients are Dr. Jessica Ball, MPH, PhD and Marlene Lewis, MA, RSLP, S-LP(C) for their paper “First Nations Elders’ and Parents’ Views on Supporting Their Children’s Language Development”.

We wanted to give SAC members and associates the chance to get to know a bit about this year’s recipients, so we decided to ask Marlene and Jessica a few questions about their work. Please read on to find out what led them to write the winning paper and the clinical applications of their research.

How did you get into the subject area of speech-language pathology?

Jessica Ball (JB): I have worked to support Indigenous people’s wellness and optimal child development for two decades. I frequently heard S-LPs who work with First Nations communities express concerns about atypical patterns of speech and delays in language development among Indigenous children they saw in early childhood programs and through referrals. I became interested in oral language development because it’s so important to a child’s literacy, successful transition to school and overall development.

Marlene Lewis (ML): When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives by improving their quality of life. Three years after finishing my secondary schooling, I learned about the profession of speech-language pathology accidentally through a friend who told me about the program. I inquired further and realized that I would love to work in the area of language and communication.

What led you into research?

ML: I started off as a clinician, and then became a provincial program and policy consultant. My job as a consultant was eventually eliminated, so I thought about what I loved doing and chose to return to clinical work and research. I wanted to pursue interdisciplinary studies that would support children’s development at the community level and that led me to learning about and getting involved in Dr. Ball’s work with First Nations children and communities.

JB: There is a huge gap in knowledge about young Indigenous children’s language acquisition within the existing body of published research literature. I realized we needed research to identify the key determinants of the speech and language differences and delays in Indigenous children that have been observed by parents, early childhood educators and S-LPs.

How did you come to focus on the topic of First Nations’ views on child language development?

JB: Marlene and I both understood that language socialization practices are expressions of culture and that understanding First Nations’ views on child language development was an important first step towards respectful, effective practice with families to address perceived needs and support optimal language outcomes.

ML: It was an area that was not widely known in the profession of speech-language pathology. I did a small course project in which I interviewed three mothers and one grandmother who were First Nations living in urban Victoria, and that’s when I realized that these parents expressed unique cultural views and that it was really important to fully understand their perspectives.

You conducted conversational interviews with 65 First Nations Elders, grandparents and parents. How did you go about conducting this research? Did you run into any unforeseen challenges?

ML and JB: We developed the interview questions together with several S-LPs who had extensive experience with First Nations children and their families, including an S-LP who is First Nations herself. We enlisted others who already had relationships of trust with First Nations parents, grandparents and Elders in various communities to conduct the interviews — those existing relationships were critical to this research. It helped that two of the interviewers were First Nations themselves. We developed two sets of questions to use in the interviews, one longer and one shorter, and participants chose which one they wished to answer.

As the interviews went on, we were impressed by how much parents and grandparents wanted the very best supports for their children’s development and by their awareness of certain challenges that some First Nations children face in their growth and development. We were also impressed by their openness to sharing their knowledge and views, as well as trying new things.

We did not encounter unforeseen challenges; the whole process was incredibly smooth. The key was to enter into these conversations in a respectful way, and not to come in acting like people who had all of the answers.

What was the most surprising part of your research? Did you expect your findings to challenge prevalent stereotypes about First Nations caregivers?

ML and JB: The most surprising — and delightful! — part of our research was the impact that conducting the interviews had on the two interviewers who were S-LPs. Both of these professionals had previously worked in the communities where they conducted the interviews, both had longstanding relationships with children and families in the communities and one was First Nations herself. Yet they both expressed how much the interviews changed their perceptions and improved how they worked with the children and families in the communities. We learned that asking the kinds of questions we developed offers a way of enhancing the quality of services that S-LPs provide.

Many people buy into generalized notions about First Nations people being “visual” and “hands-on” communicators, as if they don’t value children’s speech or the development of strong verbal skills. It is important to recognize that there is as much diversity among First Nations people as there is in any other population. We would guess that the ability to speak clearly and having highly proficient language skills is probably valued in all cultures.

What do you see as the next step in helping First Nations people access culturally appropriate speech-language services?

ML: This is such a great question! At a community level, I see an S-LP establishing a relationship with someone in a First Nations community and taking direction from them, and expanding from there. It’s so important to create the opportunity for conversation. S-LPs can consider using the questions that we used in this research. We found that First Nations people want to be trained so they can support their own children, and they want their Indigenous languages to survive, so S-LPs should offer support to make that happen as best they can. On an individual child level, this means keeping assessment to a minimum; only assessing to the extent that you need to in order to know where you should start supporting the child’s development. It can also include supporting literacy development and using technology to increase contact and support for remote communities.

JB: In addition to the practice guidelines that Marlene has offered, I think it is important to find new ways to prepare First Nations people to act as collaborators and adjuncts with S-LPs so that we see the implementation a ‘whole community’ approach. The usual system of referrals that provides professional assessment and intervention only on a client-by-client basis should be reserved only for children who are having severe difficulties. I say this because it’s an expensive approach that reaches few children and that’s usually only after months or even years on a waiting list, especially for children in rural and remote communities where much of Canada’s Indigenous population lives. S-LPs who engage with communities should try to find ways to work alongside early childhood educators, teachers, parents and grandparents to build their capacity to support optimal speech and language outcomes for larger numbers of children.

We also need more research to identify promising practices in varying cultural and community contexts and with diverse children. This can inspire and inform improved professional pre-service and in-service preparation and practice. At the same time, there are many different First Nations cultures, communities, individuals, needs and goals. Our study cannot be generalized to apply to all of them. It is important to ask questions about socialization needs and goals in every practice situation, and not to make assumptions based on a little knowledge from a few sources.

What message do you have to other S-LPs who serve or want to serve First Nations communities?

ML and JB: Relationships of respect are foundational to everything else.

Additionally, for an S-LP to work effectively at the community level, the S-LP must have a relationship of trust with at least one reliable community member who can guide the S-LP. Otherwise, things may go off track very quickly and the S-LP may not even know where or how it happened. It’s also important to follow cultural protocols, to not presume that everyone wants the same things for a child’s development or that they see the same pathways to achieving a common goal.

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