Undertaking an undergraduate research scholarship: A service evaluation of the Sure Steps to Talking questionnaire
Over the summer I was awarded an undergraduate research scholarship from Newcastle University supervised by Professor James Law and Clinical Lead Speech and Language Therapist Kath Frazer. The aim was to provide a service evaluation of the Sure Steps to Talking (SSTT) questionnaire (Law, Frazer, Carr and Welsh, 2012). Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 30 parents and 5 health visitors (HVs) across North Tyneside to explore perceptions of the SSTT. Qualitative analysis informed the training requirements of professionals and helped shape the “care pathway” for young children and their parents.
The SSTT is a communication questionnaire used by HVs in Northumberland and North Tyneside to screen children 12 months of age and predict risk of speech and language difficulties at 4 years of age. The SSTT includes questions about the child’s non-verbal communicative behaviours such as pointing, giving and showing, which are prerequisites for later language development (McKean et al., 2014). This might be a more reliable predictor of school-age language development as the research suggests that between the ages of 24 and 36 months children’s language abilities fluctuate considerably (McKean et al., 2014).
What did parents think about the way that services are delivered?
Parents reported that they have limited knowledge of early language development and would like more information about typical development. Parents suggested that HVs should provide more specific examples of activities tailored to each child that encourage children’s communication.
How did health visitors respond to the SSTT?
HV’s valued the SSTT as an early language identification tool especially for newly qualified HVs. Including typical development awareness into HV training was suggested to provide a consistent service to families. HV’s also sought strategies to manage high parental expectations of communication development.
The findings of this service evaluation will contribute to the care pathway in North Tyneside, including the delivery of the SSTT, follow-up support, and HV training regarding early language development. This service evaluation demonstrated that the SSTT might be a feasible and effective universal screening tool to identify early communication difficulties.
My experience of an undergraduate research scholarship
The undergraduate research scholarship was an invaluable opportunity to incorporate academic knowledge, research methodology and clinical practice. The scholarship provided a ‘safe environment’ to practice skills with supervisory support. This inevitably gave me the opportunity to learn from mistakes especially when conducting qualitative methodology the first time.
Qualitative analysis enabled an in-depth understanding of the service and highlighted the complexities of differing parent and HV perceptions. The findings I presented at the Newcastle University presentation evening proved powerful and compelling according to judges, and the project was awarded the faculty poster prize. The project highlighted the importance of research in enabling continuous improvement and has provided me transferable skills that I will apply in my future career in speech and language therapy. I would thoroughly recommend any speech and language student to embrace similar opportunities, as it is a highly rewarding experience.