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How to Help Your Children Develop Their Speech and Language Skills in a (sort of) Post-COVID World

How can it be September already? It doesn’t seem too long ago that we were eating Easter eggs and wondering if we dare book a summer holiday somewhere other than our living rooms!

Yet here we are, and children are getting ready to return to school. Their new lunch boxes and water bottles waiting for their first use, their new shoes waiting to be scuffed and scraped before the first half term is over.

It isn’t news to any of us that these past 18 months have been rather – different, shall we say! There’s been a pandemic, you may have heard about it. Babies born in 2020 were restricted to who they could mix and interact with, proud grandparents had to settle for first meetings over Zoom, FaceTime or visits through a windowpane, and parent and baby groups were prohibited from operating.

Thankfully, as restrictions have begun to ease, babies have been passed around amongst family and friends, and ‘real-life’ relationships have started to form. What about the slightly older children though? What about those children who weren’t able to attend nursery, pre-school, their childminders as they would have ordinarily? They were required to stay at home (understandably so), and whilst we’re not suggesting they were plonked in front of the TV for hours on end, it is recognized that this group of children have also been affected by the coronavirus outbreak, regardless of the extent to which it touched their lives.

A proportion of young children will start primary school this September with speech and language skills below the ideal standard. This will undoubtedly be due, in part, to their missing valuable periods of time in their child-care settings as well as time with friends and family outside of these settings over the past 18 months. Whether it be playing alongside a peer in the water area, grappling over the sole octopus, or interacting with an adult playing a turn-taking game, this cohort of children has missed out on crucial experiences, and the consequences of these cannot be underestimated.

In my former life as an EYFS leader, each year I met with new-starter parents and spoke about the importance of language. Not from a multi-lingual aspect, not from a speech and language difficulties point of view, just from the angle of talking to each other – plain and simple.

Putting the pandemic aside for the moment, we encouraged parents to consider how often, in their everyday lives, did they give time for language interactions? ‘Hurry up and eat your breakfast, we’re going to be late!’ does not count. I’m sure the parents we met with, year on year, won’t mind me sharing that actually, once you stop and think about what an average day looks like from the viewpoint of language, it can be rather striking. It certainly felt like that to me, judging by the gasps and expressions of realization on their faces. It isn’t easy. We all have routines to try and keep to, but with a little thought we can aim to get our young children speaking a lot more.

Some parents will read a story to their children at bedtime and have a little chat about the day’s events. This is a lovely experience to share, taking turns to speak and listen, and making comments relevant to what has been said. However, there are so many more opportunities we can make use of during the day and it’s just being aware of these little snippets of time that, when added together, can have a significant impact on your child’s language development.

• The use of open questions.

‘What would you like for breakfast, Cheerios again?’
Take out the latter part of the question and it changes the whole range of possibilities. If we give a child an option, in this case ‘Cheerios’ for breakfast, they are more likely to nod or shake their head, they may grunt at you, if you’re lucky you may get a ‘Yes please’, or a ‘No, thank you’ but they are not required to speak. It’s the easy option and why, quite frankly, would you try and formulate a response about breakfast cereal when you’re perhaps still a little sleepy! By asking the open question, ‘What would you like for breakfast?’ your child has to reply. By all means, allow a slight pause before offering suggestions if needed, for example, ‘…Cheerios? Jam and toast? Crumpets?’ but providing just one choice limits how your child will respond.

• Allow enough time for your morning routine.

I touched on this previously, ‘Hurry up, we’re going to be late!’ doesn’t count in terms of high-quality language opportunities! Whilst I am in the real world and I do understand, pre-Covid, the parents amongst us had to get children to breakfast club, childminders or school by a certain time and then hit the commute to work before we risked losing our parking space, it only requires a few extra minutes in the morning to help develop your child’s language skills. Over time, encourage your child to remember their own belongings for school, your child’s teacher will thank you no end! Ask your child ‘Have you got everything for school, what do you need?’ Rather than throwing a long list of questions at your child, such as ‘Have you got your sandwich box? Have you got your book bag? Don’t forget your water bottle!’ encourage your child to develop responsibility for their things, it will take time and practise but will really help you each morning in the long term.

• Don’t always be available.

As children have been at home with their main careers for an extended period of time, there is every chance they have had every request fulfilled, in double quick time. Unfortunately, in the classroom, they will find themselves with up to 29 other children (or more!) all vying for an adult’s attention. For example, if a child needs help putting their coat on they may find themselves having to wait until the adult can get to them. At home, parents will have completed this task with ease and, when faced with a slight delay, some children may find it rather challenging to just simply wait their turn. Parents can help to combat this by making themselves busy, or even pretending to be busy, in order to help children develop more patience. So, the next time your child asks for something, just reply with ‘I’ll do that in a minute, I just need to… first.’ This will help your child, who has potentially missed being in a large group and not had the opportunities to wait their turn, as they move back into a busy setting.

The same applies in communication. We all take turns to speak. Young children will undoubtedly interrupt whilst adults are speaking but, as they mature and learn the conventions of communicating, they will learn to wait their turn. At home, if you are talking to another person, whether it is an adult or a child, a child who wants to speak to you needs to learn that it isn’t always possible to have their needs met immediately. Children need to be aware that adults are involved in conversation with someone else and a simple ‘Just a minute please, I’m talking to…’ will help them learn that they cannot expect to gain attention straight away.

• Consider how often your child has ‘screen time’.

When you see your child after their day at school, spend a little time talking to them about what they have done. Granted, they may have no recollection of what they did or who they played with but spend the walk or drive home talking about their day, and yours too. If your child has been to after-school club, childminders or their grandparents then factor in the little chat during your evening meal or bath time. Research has shown that if there is a TV on in the room then there is automatically less speech. As adults, we need a bit of brain space from time to time so of course the TV, and devices to play games on, have a role in our lives but EYFS practitioners urge you to be mindful of how often they feature in your child’s life each day. Fast moving images, flickering lights and instant action/reaction can have detrimental effects on children’s attention and communication. If you feel like your child spends too much time ‘plugged in’ then cut back, you are the adult and you are in charge.

• Consider how often you have ‘screen time’.

Lead by example. If you’re spending a lot of time scrolling through social media at the end of the day then you’re really not in a position to unplug your child’s x-box! Greet your child at the end of their school day, replying to the text message can wait until later. If you get a call during your child’s bath time, for example, ask if you can call them back later. Your children will not be this young forever, consider how much time is lost whilst aimlessly looking on Facebook and could these little bits of time be put to better use? Having a quick read through the messages on the WhatsApp group chat when your child has gone to bed is far more time-efficient and so much more favorable from a child’s social interaction and language development point of view.

In terms of the bigger picture, as part of their literacy curriculum, children in Reception classes learn how to write simple captions and sentences. If children aren’t used to speaking in full sentences, then they won’t be able to write in full sentences either. Whilst it is indeed true that these children are only young and just starting on their journey in primary school, if their speech and language are delayed from the outset, then their future progress can be greatly impeded.

If you are concerned about your child’s language development, speak to your child’s teacher or family doctor. These professionals are aware that, due to the restrictions incurred over the past two years, young children being unable to mix with their peers has likely had an adverse effect on their speech, language and social development. With some realizations and thoughtful changes, improvements can be made and the gap can be closed. It may take time and effort but the rewards will be crucial and so worthwhile.

Source: Classroom Secrets