Roles for Speech-Language Therapists with Indigenous children and families

Principal Investigator:
Jessica Ball (Faculty, School of Child and Youth Care, University Victoria)
Marlene Lewis, M.A., S-LP(C)
“I used to think that language would lead us inexplicably to grace. I still do.”
Charles Wright, USA Poet Laureate, 2010, Sarabande Books

Project background

Indigenous leaders in Canada have argued that lack of services, as well as culturally inappropriate pedagogies, developmental screening and assessment, and early intervention services have resulted in serious negative consequences for Indigenous children – especially high levels of diagnosis of pathology. Research in child and youth care and community psychology emphasize the need to consider the socio-cultural context of children's lives to inform what is typical and expected for growth and development. Culture can be a cornerstone for meaningful programs of family and community-centred strategies to ensure optimal development.

In the field of speech and language services for young children, current approaches to delivering services tend to focus on the child within the family unit as the context for overall child development including language and communication. Little attention has been paid to developing models that also incorporate the cultural aspects of language socialization or the community context. Intervention strategies used in Canada have been developed in middle-class, urban settings and are based on the values, beliefs and goals of families primarily of English language heritage.

Project goal

This project area aims to encourage critical thinking and consideration of alternatives to mainstream methods and tools in speech-language practice in Indigenous contexts. Alternatives may include adapting assessment tools and responding more robustly to a families’ home language(s) or dialect and their values and practices surrounding speaking and listening.

Project outcomes

Projects on early language facilitation in early childhood programs and culturally based goals for children's communication skills have contributed to recent efforts to improve the practice of speech and language therapists when working with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children and families. Team members have encouraged the Speech-Language and Audiology Association of Canada (SAC) to bring more attention to the needs of practitioners working in Indigenous contexts at the association’s national conferences and the association’s Journal of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology.  

Two studies with national impact include:

  • A national survey of speech-language pathologists' experiences of working with Indigenous children and families, their perceptions of how well their clinical training prepared them, and their perspective on how they may improve their self-assessed readiness and effectiveness. (see…)
  • An exploration of how First Nations parents and elders think about children's early language development and their own goals for their children's communication, including which language(s) they should learn first, how more proficient speakers should interact with young children to promote their language skills, how children should learn to regulate their speech depending on social situations, and how talkative children should be. (see…)

Another project area, undertaken by Jessica Ball and Sharla Peltier, involves the creation of guides for parents and early childhood practitioners to promote early language development and identify children's needs for extra supports. Sharla and Jessica have also provided training across the country for early childhood program staff and for clinicians on strategies for facilitating children's language development in ways that draw upon mainstream science of language acquisition as well as on cultural and local resources, knowledge, and forms of interaction.


B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development through the Human Early Learning Partnership:


View all reports and resources related to this project.