The Powerful Act of Listening

To help parents and families identify developmental delay in children early, this speech-language pathologist starts by lending an ear

New Mexico speech-language pathologist Nancy Lewis learned a lot about communications early in her career thanks in part to a serendipitous seating arrangement: Her office in a middle school was located near a large hallway intersection that made it easy to pick up on student conversations and observe what their body language was saying that their words were not.

That kind of listening is a skill that Nancy has deployed for the majority of her career as an SLP who has worked closely with families whose children have developmental disorders and speech-language impairment.

“As SLPs, it’s one of the skill sets we bring to the table that’s often overlooked,” she says.

In order to craft realistic and usable plans, Nancy does more than just hear out her students — she interprets their needs. That allows her to identify underlying issues and craft treatment plans that can be easily incorporated into families’ daily lives.

Now, her rich expertise in communication is having a broader impact.

Nancy is the Act Early Ambassador to New Mexico, appointed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and serving through the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. In this role, she helps promote collaboration among early childhood stakeholders in her state to improve systems of early identification of developmental delay and linkage to services as needed.

Her role once again involves a lot of listening — to how families learn about developmental milestones, what they know about signs of delays, and what they say their children’s needs are.

“According to a national survey, only about 30 percent of parents have said their primary care physician has administered a standardized developmental screening for their children within the last 12 months,” she says.

Those screenings probe how children are meeting certain milestones in how they play, learn, speak, act and move between birth and age five, and help inform parents what to look for and what to do if they have concerns. The CDC’s Learn the Signs. Act Early. campaign provides useful materials, along with a new app, to make it easier for parents to track their child’s development.

To help families communicate with physicians and other service providers, Nancy and her team are interviewing families who have children with developmental disorders to understand their journey to seek assistance. Employing that often-overlooked skill set, they approach each family “not as clinicians, but as listeners,” she says. They ask “about life with their child and the conditions that support family engagement.”

That kind of direct communication — and interpreting — is empowering, Nancy notes. It allows families to become advocates for changing how systems, such as administered developmental screenings, help them.

“SLPs and audiologists can play a key role in this work,” she says. The first step is being a good listener.