When receiving referrals for evaluations, in particular preschool evaluations, my special education team and I often ask parents the question: “Can you please describe a typical day at home for your child?”
Common responses include playing with siblings, going to the park, reading, playing with toys, sleeping and watching some TV. About two years ago, we noted a worrisome shift in responses. Now an alarming number of parents responded: “He spends all day long on the tablet/phone.”
When asked to elaborate, parents respond that “all day long” often meant five, six or even seven hours a day on a device. This leaves little room for play, socialization and conversing with parents and family members, all of which are vital components to the healthy development of a child.
We did our best to educate families on the risks associated with hours of screen time. The parents we met with heard our concerns and seemed to listen. We felt these conversations, however, were a case of too little, too late.
The number of referrals for children 4 and younger continued to increase. Typical parent concerns broadened from delayed language skills to aggressive behaviors and inability to socialize with others. Special education and general education professionals throughout our district experienced the same trend.
During the 2017–2018 school year, I joined forces with a group of school-based professionals, including a social worker, special educator, psychologist, pre-K and high school teachers, and a media/technology specialist. Our team formed to propose a community and district-wide campaign about the possible communication, social and developmental issues linked with too much screen time in young children. [Editor’s note: “screen time” does not include using devices for augmentative and alternative communication.]
In a district with smart boards in every classroom and a school improvement plan that includes technology use, we knew this initiative might be an uphill battle. We wanted to climb that hill anyway. Our climb started with convincing the district superintendent, school board, local pediatricians, daycare providers and places of worship to help us spread our message.
Our team hit a snag when we couldn’t secure a meeting with the superintendent. After many phone calls and emails, we did present our proposal to the district’s executive director of student achievement. We convinced him about the importance of spreading this message, and he is now working to secure a partnership with a community organization to help widen our reach. The executive director will also present the proposal to the superintendent and school board members this fall.
As we worked on expanding our mission throughout the district, members of the team also presented to parents of current and incoming preschoolers every week in February and March during parent-night gatherings. Many parents shared their own struggles to reconnect with their children during these presentations and eagerly took notes on our tips.
We offered parents simple strategies to increase engagement with their children:
- Set aside dedicated times each day to play and engage with their children from infancy and up, but also take advantage of times when their child is a captive audience for interactions, like diaper changes, meals, car trips, doctors waiting rooms and more.
- Limit screen time for themselves, since we model healthy and appropriate behaviors for our children.
- Reframe boredom as the brain’s way of creating new ways to play.
- Create “screen free” zones in their homes and during certain activities—while outdoors or at the dinner table, for example.
Our team also created and disseminated a survey for parents to acquire data related to the students’ tech habits at home.
In April, I—along with two other team members—attended the Children’s Screen Time Action Network Conference in Boston. While there, we met pediatricians, educators, parents and authors all sharing our goals. We collaborated with attendees to devise strategies on reducing screen time trends for children.
Upon the superintendent’s approval of this initiative, the team will present to all principals in our district with a detailed plan on how to educate families and decrease screen time in the classrooms without compromising curriculum content.
The team also plans to reach out directly to community groups with our presentation. We feel there’s an epidemic of new generations of children lacking exposure to language and communication skills.
SLPs can be on the front lines spreading the word on how parents can—and should—change their habits.
Samah M. Saidi, MA, CCC-SLP, is a bilingual SLP for the Dearborn (Michigan) Schools. She is also an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 16, School-Based Issues. saidis@