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Lockdown and Language – What are the Effects on Children's Development?

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

Everyone has been affected in different ways because of COVID-19, whether directly from the virus or indirectly through restrictions and closures. We know this is a stressful time and a lot is still unknown in terms of how long the pandemic will continue or what the effects will be on aspects like education and development for children and youth.


The state of the world and our individual lives changes daily, so there is an ongoing need for research into the effects of the pandemic, and it will likely continue to be an important topic for years to come. But for right now, we want to take a look at some of the initial findings about the effects of lockdowns and safety measures on children's development of speech and language.


Missing Social Interaction and Learning Opportunities


Out of 50, 000 four- and five-year-olds in England who started school in September 2020, 20-25% more students needed help with language skills compared to the previous year. 96% of schools who were surveyed said they were concerned about students' speech and language development.


While teachers are doing their best to make up for lost time and trying to keep kids engaged, young children are missing important experiences that contribute to the growth of their vocabulary, such as making friends through play, observing facial expressions, and experiencing hands-on learning.


Parents are concerned about long-term effects of these lockdowns since "the research shows that if a child does have issues with language at that age, by adulthood they're four times more likely to struggle with reading". To account for this, the UK government is investing the equivalent of $30 million CAD into catch-up programs. Some parents have been enrolling their children into summer learning programs to give them the skills to better communicate and express their needs.


Effects on Children with Hearing Loss


A study was conducted in 2020 by researchers from SickKids and the University of Toronto with 45 children who have cochlear implants to improve their hearing. Because of these implants, the researchers were able to measure the amount of exposure to sound these children had during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and more specifically, how much of that sound came from speech.

Overall, the consensus was that the lives of these children were quieter than they were before the lockdown. This might not seem like a bad thing, but the decrease in sound during the lockdowns was specifically a reduction in exposure to spoken language. Younger children who need to be looked after by caregivers during lockdowns were likely not affected since they were exposed to their speech, but school-age children were exposed to 10% less speech on average. This translates to approximately 600 to 2000 words missed per day, as well as missed opportunities to participate in conversation exchanges which are important for the development and maintenance of the language centres in the brain.


What's even more concerning is that the software used by the researchers can't distinguish between real-life conversations and speech coming from electronics like a TV, phone, tablet, etc. This means that the decrease of hearing and participating in speech was most likely even more dramatic than the researchers reported. Again, this is important to be aware of since "language development slows when access to spoken language is delayed or declines."


Our Thoughts


We think it's important to acknowledge that while lockdowns may be impacting the quality of education and learning, we are not necessarily opposed to them. We take COVID-19 very seriously and advocate for everyone to comply with the restrictions that are in place and to follow all public health recommendations.


The full effects of the pandemic on children's speech and language development are still being determined, but based on what is known currently, there will likely be an increased need for assistance in areas like verbal expression, understanding language, literacy, etc. This isn't meant to create fear or panic, but to encourage you to take an active role, whenever possible, in children's language learning.


We have a number of blog posts available with suggestions for how to supplement kids' speech and language development and how to recognize whether or not they're on the right track for their age:

We know this time of uncertainty can be scary, but that's why we're here to support you. Don't hesitate to reach out to us in the comments, by phone or by email with any of your concerns about the children in your life. We're in this together!



Resources

Gordon, K. A., Daien, M. F., Negandhi, J., Blakeman, A., Ganek, H., Papsin, B., & Cushing, S. L. (2021). Exposure to Spoken Communication in Children with Cochlear Implants During the COVID-19 Lockdown. JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, 147(4), 368. doi:10.1001/jamaoto.2020.5496


Jeffreys, B. (2021, April 27). Lockdowns hurt child speech and language skills - report. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/education-56889035

 

Andalusia Speech Therapy has multiple clinics across Ontario and offers virtual therapy to clients anywhere in the world. Contact us more for information.

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