By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent
“My kid is reverting to a caveman!”
That was one of the plaintive cries that Lynn Epstein of Laguna Beach Language & Speech Clinic heard from a frustrated parent.
The pandemic has had a huge, hurtful impact on families, especially those with young children who need help with communication skills including language development, processing verbal information, and executive function skills. Parents were distraught at their inability to access Epstein’s in-person therapy, an eagerly anticipated outing for many children.
Epstein works closely with parents to boost children’s language skills. She provides education classes for parents, teachers, and colleagues. Before COVID-19, she could typically be found playing and chatting animatedly on the floor at eye level with the toddlers and grade-schoolers she works with.
The speech language therapist is not at a loss for words to describe the past year.
“It was a wicked rollercoaster. And I do not like rollercoasters. One’s stomach does not belong in one’s mouth,” she said.
Epstein’s busy practice lost the all-important family connections that help children progress in their interwoven cognitive and speech skills. She moved to online therapy, a challenge for any child, but nearly impossible for kids who have difficulty paying attention to verbal cues from a two-dimensional person on a screen, even a fun, energetic one like Epstein.
“We went from 45-minute sessions to trying to make progress in just 10 or 15 minutes. But some is better than none, and we built skills from there.”
“For me, the nuances of in-person teaching are invaluable,” she said. “The nonverbals of a look, posture, eye contact, facial expressions are critical components for learning language and social behavior. I miss blowing bubbles.”
A diminutive, lithe figure in sneakers and clothing meant for movement (“I dress kind of like the kids – sometimes we have the same outfit on,” cracks the sometimes-standup comic and Lagunatics cast member), Epstein talks, plays games, and makes noises to capture students’ attention. She uses tools like marble towers, train sets, and stacks of sofa cushions to engage kids, talk about the fun, and release excess energy (the “ya-yas”).
Although limiting, online therapy gave her a peek inside patients’ homes. As a result, Epstein can advise parents on making their households more kid-friendly and finding teachable moments during their everyday routines.
“I was surprised to see how many children did not have a kid-size table and chair. A child’s work is play. Children need their own comfortable area to draw, paint, write, do puzzles. Some kids live in pristine homes where a mess isn’t allowed. If it’s a mess or it breaks, let’s fix it, ‘no problem.’ Otherwise, how do you teach a child resilience? Cooperation? Helping parents customize a space for ‘kid learning’ and releasing the ‘ya-yas’ has been a new opportunity.”
Growing up in Miami as a nine-year-old with language difficulties, Epstein learned the power of a professional physically getting down at a child’s level and talking to rather than at them. This was her experience with her speech pathologist, the late Dr. Daniel Garliner, a well-regarded researcher. She was so responsive to his approach that she became an excellent student whom he presented at seminars as a live case study. It stayed with her and set her on her career path.
Epstein is part of the Laguna Beach Unified School District’s Laguna Beach Early Learning Community Task Force, giving webinars to reach parents who need help and guidance. The next event, Passport to Learning, is March 20.
“My job is to shape children’s behavior and language so they can communicate,” she said. “I want them to be able to access the world and become effective communicators.”
Barbara is a Laguna Beach-based writer, communications, and marketing professional. Find her at mcmurraymarketing.com.
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