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How has the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Children’s Language Development?

In the aftermath of Covid, there has been increasing talk of a ‘lost generation’ of children, whose education, nutrition, and well-being were severely damaged by two years of coronavirus, with potentially lifelong, irreversible effects.

But is it alarmist to suggest that children whose development was stalled by lockdown will never be able to catch up? And why is it that delays in early childhood often have the most devastating effects on lifelong attainment?

In today’s article, we’ll take a closer look at the myriad of factors that have affected speech, language, and social communication development during the pandemic, as well as which children have been impacted the most, and what can be done to mitigate these effects in the longterm.

Why are the Early Years so Important?

Before we get into specifics, let’s take a moment to consider why, in the early years of learning, especially, it can be incredibly difficult for a student to catch up once they’ve fallen behind.

Early childhood lays the foundation for all of what comes later. Take the example of the classic academic framework of ‘learning to read to read to learn,’ which is the notion that the first few years of schooling (generally K-3) are focused on learning how to read so that as a child continues through their academic career (years 4-12 and into university), they can use reading as a tool for learning. Reading to learn (or reading comprehension) is a complex skill that requires the integration of many other skills, such as having a robust vocabulary, understanding spelling rules, and being able to read fluently enough that energy can be focused on understanding the message rather than figuring out the words. By the end of elementary school, reading comprehension becomes a prerequisite to academic success. But it’s impossible to achieve ‘reading to learn’ if we don’t first acquire the foundation that is laid during the ‘learning to read’ years.

As with literacy, the speech, language, and social communication skills we learn in early childhood are foundational to all of what comes later. This is why any interruption to our development during the early childhood years can follow us all the way into adulthood. If we miss a year of Algebra or World History at age sixteen, that leaves important gaps in our knowledge, but if we’ve got a good foundation, we can go back and fill them in. In contrast, if we don’t acquire the ‘learning to read‘ skills or our speech or language development falls behind from an early age and isn’t mitigated, we can forget about Algebra and World History altogether.

Universal Impacts

Let’s now consider some of the factors of Covid-19 that were universally impactful, meaning that they were likely to affect children regardless of social determinants such as socioeconomic status or place of residence (e.g., rural versus urban).

Mask wearing

Speech perception involves the integration of auditory and visual information. We don’t just listen to the words that a person says. We also watch the movements of their lips and face, which provides us with feedback about whether or not we’ve heard correctly. In fact, a quick search for the McGurk effect on YouTube will show you just how important a role seeing plays in hearing. The sound that we perceive a person to be saying can, in fact, change based on the way their lips are moving.

During the pandemic, many parents justifiably became worried that mask-wearing might have negative impacts on children’s speech development. Interestingly, there isn’t much research to back this up. In fact, studies have shown that children with vision impairments learn the language at the same rate as their non-visually impaired peers. This is true because when one sense is weakened or taken away, the other senses tend to amplify. Unable to see the way a person’s mouth moves when they speak, a child may pay more attention to the tone of voice, gestures, and the emotions conveyed by a speaker’s eyes.

However, masks do have a slight damping effect, which makes them really hard on kids who have any kind of hearing loss. They may confuse similar sounds, such as ‘t’ and ‘d’ or ‘g’ and ‘k,’ when listening to a person wearing a mask. Not only can this have an impact on their speech development, but it may lead to roll on effects on their acquisition of pre-literacy skills, including rhyming, and separating words into sounds (e.g., knowing the word ‘cat’ is made of three sounds, ‘c-a-t’).

Additionally, masks obscure facial expressions. The ability to recognize facial expressions builds emotional awareness and is considered by psychologists and speech-language pathologists to be foundational to learning how to play and cooperate with others. Thus, the information lost from being unable to see facial expressions during interaction may have negative impacts on social skill development in young children.

Social distancing and limited gatherings

Social interaction is essential for developing social skills. Children learn an incredible amount from playing and interacting with others, including how to share and take turns during games and in conversation, how to initiate conversations with others, and how to regulate their emotions when things don’t go their way. During kindergarten and first grade, children are also taught the vocabulary for a range of emotions, as well as what kind of facial expressions and body language correlates with each emotion.

Especially amongst younger children, the reduced interaction with others their age throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has left them with stunted social skills as they enter school for the first time. Teachers have reported an uptick in self-centered behaviors amongst kindergarteners, including taking toys or objects from others, wanting all of their teacher’s attention, or throwing tantrums when they don’t get what they want.

Fortunately, parents can help their kids develop their social communication at home. They can provide praise or encouragement for positive social skills, such as initiating a conversation, sharing toys, or showing an interest in others. During book reading, they can ask questions about what the characters might be thinking or feeling, and what they would do in a similar situation. These strategies not only promote social awareness, but can also strengthen a child’s vocabulary, as well as their prediction, inferencing, and early critical thinking abilities.

Learning through a screen during lockdown

Young children learn best in multi-sensory environments, in which touch, sight, hearing, and even taste or smell are part of the learning experience. Many adults may recall, for example, adding and subtracting using blocks or beads during early math lessons. These are used because educational researchers have long understood that concrete symbols are an indispensable aid to learning abstract concepts, such as addition and subtraction, for the first time.

Unfortunately, online classes don’t allow for a multi-sensory approach to learning. Though many teachers became whizzes in the use and creation of online visual aides to support teaching content through Zoom during the Covid-19 lockdown, there is simply no replacement for the type of learning that occurs in the classroom when kids are able to use their whole bodies to engage.

For elementary, middle, and high school students, Zoom fatigue has also led to a reduction in the amount of time most kids are able to focus and pay attention.

The widening gap between children of the rich and poor

Despite some universal impacts, the effects of lockdown have not been experienced equally. Disparities in-home learning environments, access to technology and to speech therapy services, as well as the amount of time parents were able to spend with children during the lockdown have disproportionately affected the children of poor families compared with those of wealthy families.

Exposure to Language

Children’s language develops through listening to and interacting with the people around them. Even during the first few months of a child’s life, when it may seem that they aren’t paying much attention to the words being spoken to them, babies’ brains are in fact beginning to make connections between the sounds they hear and the people and objects around them.

There is a direct correlation between the amount and quality of language that a child is exposed to and the rate of their language development. By the time a child reaches kindergarten, this can mean the difference between being on track to succeed or falling behind academically.

Crucially, children need to be interacting with the person that is modeling the language for them to learn. Passive exposure to language, such as watching television or listening to adults speak to one another, does little to stimulate language acquisition. Unfortunately, this means that socioeconomic status has a huge bearing on language development. This is true because caregivers in low-income families tend to be more time-poor than those of wealthy families. Parents may work multiple jobs, meaning that they spend less time playing with their kids each day. Their children may attend underfunded daycare centers, where the attention of one or two early childhood educators is spread across fifteen to twenty children.

On the reverse side, children in wealthy families are likely to spend more quality time with their parents, attend daycare centers with more staff per child, or even be cared for by nannies or babysitters whose primary role is to engage in language-rich play and caretaking.

One of the impacts of Covid-19 was to exacerbate existing inequalities in language exposure. While high-income families reported that they were able to spend more quality time with their children as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, many low-income families reported spending less time with their children. Additionally, the financial stressors that the pandemic placed on low-income families had a large impact on parents’ mental health, reducing the mental capacity to engage in play and other language-enriching activities.

Disparities in home-learning environments

Socioeconomic differences also played a role in some of the disparities seen in the home learning environments of students who attended school online throughout lockdown. Regular, reliable access to technology is often taken for granted by members of the middle and upper classes. However, according to studies conducted by the Pew Research Center, fifteen percent of U.S. households with school-aged children do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, which is of course a prerequisite to online learning via Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms.

However, that fifteen percent is not evenly distributed across all U.S. populations. Instead, thirty-five percent of low-income households (earning less than $30,000 per year) with school-aged children do not have access to high-speed internet, while the same is true of just six percent of those with a household income of over $75,000 per year.

Additionally, according to a 2018 Pew Center Survey, one in four low-income teenagers lacks access to a computer at home. Although laptop loan programs were set up around the country to aid affected students during the lockdown, many were unable to attend online classes for months before receiving one, and subsequently fell behind their peers.

A quiet, comfortable learning environment was also an important consideration during the Covid-19 pandemic. Even amongst those that did have reliable access to both laptops and high-speed internet, having a private place to learn free from distractions such as noisy siblings or parents making phone calls meant the difference for some between being able to tune into their lessons each day versus frequently tuning out.

In the worst scenarios, we saw students slip through the cracks entirely during the lockdown. Some were unable to access their online classes from home due to lack of technology or internet. Others, especially many young students, were unable to attend school because they were too young to stay home alone while their parents – oftentimes essential workers – were away. These kids, whose parents were widely considered heroes for their contributions during the pandemic, became some of the most vulnerable nations to school absenteeism.

Reduced access to therapy during the Covid-19 lockdown

Speech therapy can help children to develop a wide variety of communication skills. In early childhood, it’s often focused on helping children with speech sound disorders learn to pronounce words correctly, which, as mentioned above is a prerequisite to literacy attainment (to sound a word out, first you’ve got to be able to say the word correctly). Both children and young adults with developmental language disorders use speech therapy to develop their ability to express themselves or understand others through spoken language. And people of all ages seek speech therapy services to improve their reading, writing, and social communication.

Without targeted intervention, it can be nearly impossible for students with speech, language or literacy difficulties to catch up to their peers. Unfortunately, this is another area in which children of low-income families have been more impacted than those of middle or high-income families. The inability to access high-speed internet meant that many students that were previously receiving speech therapy through their schools lost out on those services during the lockdown. These students, who were already vulnerable to academic failure pre-pandemic, have fallen even further behind without the extra support needed to get them on track.

Other at-risk students have likely gone unidentified due to inherent differences in the way teachers are able to connect with their students through a screen compared to a classroom. With online learning, teachers have far fewer opportunities to observe their students discussing, problem-solving or playing with one another, making it much more difficult to flag students that would benefit from speech therapy or additional classroom support.

What can be done

Early studies of the impacts of Covid-19 on children’s development paint a bleak picture. One longitudinal study showed that “children born during the pandemic have significantly reduced verbal, motor, and overall cognitive performance compared to children born pre-pandemic”. Across the country, teachers and school districts reported increases of fifteen to thirty percent in the number of students failing one or more courses compared with previous years. And the data shows that the poor have absorbed much more of the negative impacts than the rich, with potential long-term effects on educational achievement and vocational attainment.

As alarming as this all sounds, we don’t have to just sit around and wait for the long-term effects to play out. We can and should take action now to help students that have been negatively impacted and fight against the worst predictions for the ‘lost generation.’

What can parents do

As discussed above, the onus of getting children back on track cannot be placed on parents alone. We know that many parents are too financially stressed or time-poor to be able to take on more responsibilities. But for those that have the capacity, adopting some simple strategies to promote language development can make a world of difference. These include:

  1. Talking and playing with your little ones as much as possible. Try narrating what you do throughout the day (e.g., “We’re making dinner together,” or “I’m cutting the carrots”) or the ‘copy and add’ strategy (e.g., If your child says, “blue car,” respond with “It’s a big, blue car”).
  1. Read and discuss books together. Depending on your child’s level, you might ask simple questions, such as “What color is the bird?” or more complex questions, such as “What do you think will happen next?” or “What would you do if that happened to you?”
  2. Reduce passive screen time as much as possible.

Big picture solutions

There is a mountain of research demonstrating that individualized speech therapy services for students that fall behind can be highly effective. In the wake of the coronavirus, increasing public awareness and access to speech therapy will play a pivotal role in helping young people to get back on track.

As a society, we might also consider putting provisions in place to safeguard against students falling through the cracks in the event of future crises. This might include the recognition that technology such as laptops and high-speed internet are now basic utilities that all young people need to have access to.

Additionally, government policies recognizing the importance of quality early childhood education for all will help to close the gap between wealthy and poor children by promoting the speech, language, and social communication skills that are foundational to all learning.

Ultimately, there is no one way to begin to undo the damage done during the two years of the coronavirus. Educators, speech pathologists, parents, and the general public all have a role to play. The first step is to deepen our understanding of what’s happened by reading articles like this one. Once informed, we can begin to put our heads together to get students back on track.

Curious about other language stories? Check out the ALTA Beyond Words Blog for more.

Janet Barrow holds a B.A. in Written Arts from Bard College, and a Master of Speech-Language Pathology from the University of Sydney. She works as a pediatric speech pathologist and freelance writer, and is currently finishing her first novel.

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