Local children are learning how to enjoy eating during the first Pediatric Feeding Group at the Wichita State University Speech-Language-Hearing (SLH) Clinic.
Each week, children who are picky eaters or problem feeders meet at the clinic to play, smash, smear - and ideally - eat their way through a variety of foods like crackers, strawberries, juice and more.
It may sound more like play than therapy, but faculty and students use strategic play-based and evidence-based activities to encourage children to explore new foods in a fun, relaxed atmosphere.
The group is led by WSU speech-language pathology graduate students and licensed speech-language pathologists who have been trained in feeding-based therapy techniques, and are certified in the Sequential Oral Sensory Feeding Approach.
Approximately 20-30% of children struggle with some form of feeding or growth issue. Gina Riggs, SLH clinic director, says the 12-week program is beneficial for preschool and school-aged children who have specific food aversions, difficulty trying new foods, or struggle to gain weight or maintain nutrition and hydration in their current diet.
Students and faculty take small steps during the sessions to make food a positive, fun experience and reduce anxiety for the children.
Much of the therapy focuses on playing with their food; children are encouraged to hammer crackers, smear applesauce and help serve themselves and others, which may lead to them putting the food in their mouth or tasting it on their fingers. The children's successes are met with smiles and cheers.
The goal is to help build the child's confidence, making them become more willing to try new tastes and textures."
There is a high child-to-clinician ratio in the program, and each child has an individualized therapy plan. Faculty work with parents to create an at-home program with practical and useable techniques they can implement immediately.
Riggs says the group setting is ideal for kids because it encourages increased social interaction between their peers, and allows for a safe, structured environment to experience food.
The feeding group consists of a large multi-disciplinary team, including registered dieticians and speech-language pathologists. The Wichita State Physical Therapy Department is also involved for sensory and motor skills components. Each specialist plays an important role in understanding the overall function of the body.
"It's important to have a multi-disciplinary approach to these types of conditions," Riggs says. "Because feeding is a complex sensorimotor skill involving multiple body systems, we require a complex team with knowledge in the areas of sensory, motor, nutrition, cognitive and emotional development to provide assessment and treatment."
Riggs says the feeding therapy program at the clinic is unique because it's one of the only sequential oral feeding groups with certified speech-language pathologists in the area.
"What also makes this program special is the parent education piece," she says. "Parent involvement is essential to the process, so being able to watch their children in the observation room and learn skills to take home is invaluable."
Riggs says that this program is also beneficial for the speech-language pathology graduate students at Wichita State.
Programs like this not only help people in our community, but also provide our students with unique clinical skills that help shape them into more well-rounded speech-language pathologists."
In just a few weeks, faculty and students have already seen progress and positive changes in the children.
"It's rewarding to see a child try a new food this week that they wouldn't even touch last week," says Riggs.