Encouraging Speech and Language Development Amidst a Pandemic

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March 2020 hit everyone really hard. No one had ever experienced anything quite like COVID-19 and the global shutdown. Suddenly, everything from restaurants to schools was closed. People were masked, and socialization was at a minimum. 

I am a speech-language pathologist. I help children communicate. Over the past year, I have adapted to teletherapy, masks, face shields, social distancing, and our “new normal.” Our children are adapting as well. However, there are many issues that I have observed that increase the importance of the parent-child relationship.

Parents, you were already the most important part of your child’s development. COVID-19 made you practically the only part of your child’s development. Here are just some of my observations. 

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Motivation to Communicate

Intelligibility. Big word for how well you understand your child. Is your child relatively unintelligible? If so, masks are probably making your little one even more frustrated with his/her difficulty communicating. We rely heavily on lip-reading when we cannot understand another person. If your child is wearing a mask, you can’t default to lip reading. This leads to increased communication breakdowns, increased frustration on the part of the child and parents, and probably more meltdowns related to that frustration.

My solution: My two favorite words when I begin therapy with a relatively unintelligible child: “Show me.” You always want to encourage communication even if it’s hard. I can’t imagine wanting to communicate if all I ever heard was, “I have no idea what you’re saying.” If you aren’t sure what your child is saying, encourage them to point, act it out, take you to what they are talking about.

Speech and Language Development

Without going into too much detail, speech and language are different. Speech refers to the sounds that we use to form words (not the words themselves or how we communicate those words). Recently, an article was published in the Scientific American titled, “Masks Can Be Detrimental to Babies’ Speech and Language Development.” The author, Dr. David Lewkowicz, makes some great arguments. However, he did not mention that parents can and should make an effort to decrease these detrimental effects. 

The first three years of a child’s life are the most important and intensive period for speech and language acquisition. Dr. Lewkowicz performed a study that confirmed that babies begin watching the mouths of a speaker around 4 months of age. And more astonishingly, they begin to lip-read around 8 months of age. And research shows that children who learn to lip-read have better language development as they grow.

The development of lip-reading is crucial to the development of speech. Consider talking with a friend (pre-covid) in a crowded nightclub, music blaring. Understanding what she is saying is going to take A LOT of effort. You will probably default to lip reading to help bridge the gap between what she said and what you heard. Children need to develop this skill. 

My solution: TALK TALK TALK at home. Unmasked, face-to-face communication is VITAL for babies’ speech and language development. When you are at home, spend as much time as you can playing and talking with your children.

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Social Development

March 2020 threw all social norms out the window. We no longer shake hands when we meet someone. Our personal bubbles have turned into personal steel cages. Children no longer are learning social norms from personal experience – limited play dates, restaurants are closed. How are children supposed to learn how to act in certain places if they never go anywhere?

Facial expressions are hidden behind masks. And even before COVID-19, reading facial expressions was never easy. Imagine trying to tell the difference between an embarrassed, happy, annoyed, or polite smile behind a mask.

My solution: Be obvious. Be direct. Be open. Make sure that you talk to your children about the awkwardness of social interaction during the pandemic. Tell them how you expect them to act if you go out. Even if you think you shouldn’t have to explain something, just explain it. And please (like I said before) as much unmasked, face-to-face interaction as you can with your children every day.

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These are just a few of my observations. I didn’t touch on teleclasses, zoom meetings, facetime social events, or any other of the dozen “new normals” affecting our children.

But no matter what is going on in our universe, to your children, you are the world. 

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