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How We Can Support Children's Language Development During the Pandemic

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By Melissa Pouncey, Katherine Seal, Mary Collins and Carrie Price, Early Intervention Speech Therapists from United Ability, Birmingham, AL

COVID has changed things. We’re not sure how exactly or how different we’ll be as communities when this is over, but we can all agree — things are changed. As speech therapists and early intervention providers, we’ve seen changes in our children. Maybe as a parent or grandparent, you’ve felt them too. We’re less social, we’re more cautious, we’re less busy than we used to be. And while these things are not inherently negative, and can even be seen as good, we have to look critically at how they might be impacting child development.

Language and social development in children are beautiful and complex. They thrive and grow in environments rich with stimulation and interaction, and their foundations are in routines. For many parents during this time, both environment and routines may look vastly different than they looked even a few years ago. Developmental checklist questions like, “Does your child go get their shoes when it’s time to go?” may feel meaningless in a world where we don’t go many places, and certainly don’t wear shoes as much as we did!

That’s why, as a team of Early Intervention Speech Therapists, we want to take time to highlight some ways in which current events may be impacting your little one’s development and some ideas for you as a parent or caregiver.

You may be seeing fewer people and your child may be seeing fewer children.

So much of our children’s early experiences are built around socialization with family, friends and community. Over the past year, experiences outside of the family unit may have been few and far between. The good news: our children are incredibly resilient! Whether your child has been staying at home, attending daycare or a combination of both, our children are adapting. You are now your child’s primary social unit, and there is so much beauty in that. In the meantime, focus on the day to day and find joy in the small moments by trying some of these ideas:

  • Get outside and go explore! So much language and new vocabulary can be modeled and experienced while taking walks, playing a game of “I spy” or starting a garden. Point to what you see, label it and describe it! Observe the weather, point out animals, describe plants, collect the rocks!
  • Connect with friends and family in different ways. Pull out old photo albums. Point to and talk about the people in the pictures. Write letters, draw pictures, and pull out the glitter to make some homemade cards.
  • Involve your child in daily routines. There is so much socialization that happens throughout our daily routines! Involve your child by cooking meals together at home, having them help to pick out clothes or helping with the laundry, and involve them in your exercise routine.
  • Play! It’s how our kids learn. Set aside time each day to engage your child in meaningful play. While playing, engage your child by sitting with them at eye level, take turns, and model language by narrating their actions.

You may be using more screen time while you and your family are home together.

During this time of working at home and virtual school for older children, you may be using screen time (games, videos, shows, etc.) as a way to keep your child entertained while you’re getting through your own work or facilitating your older children in school. While we are all doing it, and it feels necessary during this time, don’t forget American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero screen time for children under 2. For children 2-3, it is recommended that no more than one hour per day be spent with a screen. This is because we know that higher levels of screen time can affect cognitive, social and language development. You can read more here.

Working through screen time limits can be challenging, so here are some ideas:

  • Make screen time something that is meaningful later. Meaning, if your child is watching a video with songs, sing those songs to your child when it’s over. Or if your child watched a show about colors, point out those colors in your house as you play together.
  • Set aside time to intentionally play with screens all off. Set an alarm on your phone and find 10 minutes at a time where you play and laugh together. The more you play together, the more your child will want interaction over screens.
  • Model how to limit screen time by limiting your own. This is so hard! Put that phone down and let your child see you engaging in activities without screens. Model for them what you want to see them do.

You and your family may have less structure in your mealtimes.

Mealtimes can be a struggle for us all! If you’re like me, 11 months into the stay-at-home pandemic life, it can be exhausting thinking about the next meal. It is easy to get trapped into nonstop grazing and eating with a screen in front of us. It is also easy to feed our children separately from when we are eating. Mealtime routines are important for a variety of reasons: routines help us to know what to expect, help to decrease anxiety, and are a space to socially engage with each other.

Our children learn from watching us eat. They learn from touching, and smelling, and tasting different foods. They learn the sensations of hunger and fullness. Children learn language concepts such as eat, drink, hot, more, and all done. They are given the opportunity to try new foods and new textures. If you’re struggling to get back on a routine, try this:

  • Be reasonable and start with something you will be successful with. Start with one meal a day at the table. Provide the same foods for your child that you are eating. Name the foods as you plate them. Don’t worry about how fancy the meal is. The goal is to create a routine. If you only have the energy to make a grilled cheese sandwich and cut up an apple, then do that!
  • Limit snacking throughout the day. This can be tough! We often use snacks to quiet or distract our children when we need to accomplish a task. The trouble is, when our kids snack off and on all day, they may not be hungry at mealtimes. This creates mealtime battles when trying to get our kids to sit with us at the table. It quickly becomes frustrating when the child wants to get down and doesn’t want to eat. Try to aim for three meals and two snacks a day. Time snacks so they are not within an hour of mealtime. (I know this is tough. I feel like my kiddos always want a snack while I’m preparing dinner.)
  • Let your children help you prepare dinner. Get them involved! Give them a safe job like mashing the potatoes or whisking the eggs. Helping to prepare and see how food is cooked can decrease the anxiety of new foods and make your child proud of the meal they helped fix. It also provides opportunities to work on language as they are engaged (mix mix mix, pour in, shake shake shake).
  • Think about where your child is sitting. Are they supported? Do their legs dangle? Do they slide down in the chair? Is their chair high enough for the table? Ideally, a child will have good foot support, good trunk support, and the table is elbow height. When they are not positioned correctly, it can make mealtimes difficult. Children may be so focused on propping themselves up, or distracted by dangling feet, or struggling to reach their food that they are quickly over mealtime. If their chair does not have foot support, tie an exercise band around the chair legs. If the chair is not high enough, place a pillow, towel, or book in the seat for them to sit up higher. You would be amazed how getting your child in a better sitting position can positively impact mealtimes.

You may be getting dressed and putting on “real” clothes less frequently (and other routines).

It is very difficult to change out of our comfortable pajamas each day when you are not leaving the house, and let’s be honest, kids have the cutest pajamas! It can also be challenging to develop and follow a routine when each day seems exactly like the one before. But, routines give children a sense of stability and normalcy to each day, which is more important than ever during these unpredictable times. When children have a set routine, it allows them to predict and know what to expect each day. These routines do not have to be too strict, just a general guideline of the daily activities that you and your child participate in each day.

Routines are also excellent opportunities to model language and promote children’s imitation. When we model the same words each time you and your child participate in a routine, this establishes a verbal routine. Verbal routines help children learn and predict the words that you say because they are hearing these words repetitively and consistently, the perfect context for language development!

  • Sing your routines! Singing “this is the way we brush our teeth, brush our teeth, brush our teeth. This is the way we brush our teeth, brush brush brush!” is a very simple and fun song to implement during teeth brushing. You can also sing this song during bath time while identifying body parts as you bathe your child, such as “this is the way we wash our arm, wash our arm, wash our arm. This is the way we wash our arm, wash wash wash!” This is an excellent way to identify body parts during bath time.
  • Saying “time to eat eat” while modeling the sign for “eat” each time you are about to give your child a snack or a meal in their high chair. This will help your child learn to come to his or her high chair when he or she hears “time to eat eat,” while also promoting their ability to say or sign “eat eat” when they are hungry.
  • Singing “The Clean Up Song” each time your child is done playing with a toy. This is a great way to teach your child how to end a task or activity, and helps your child follow directions. This also prevents you from cleaning up the entire house later on! Naming the clothing item as you are helping your child get dressed, such as “shirt on,” “pants on,” “socks on.” You can also model these phrases as you take each clothing item off, “shirt off,” “pants off,” “socks off.”
  • You can sing any song or say any words that you want to use during routines, just try to use the same ones each time you participate in these routines. Remember, the simpler the better!

You may feel pressure to act as your child’s teacher, therapist, friend, and parent.

While we are all home together, and especially if you are already receiving Early Intervention, you may feel a lot of pressure to be everything to your child/ children. This may feel compounded by what you see other people doing with their children on social media. But don’t forget, you are your child’s parent. And, you are the perfect parent for your child. We weren’t meant to live in isolation and we won’t forever, so don’t feel pressure to be the perfect parent, teacher and therapist. Instead:

  • Find one thing that you love doing with your child. Everyone has strengths and things you love to do. Do you love reading to your baby? Do you love crafts? Are you a great baker? Are you most comfortable outdoors? Do that! Your child is going to learn from you the best when you’re enjoying what you’re doing together, so do the things you love.
  • Find resources that give you fresh ideas with low pressure. Check out Speech and Language at Home for a printable calendar that gives you a word or simple activity to do each day. Embrace simplicity. You don’t need elaborate toys, fancy craft boxes or the perfect schedule — just time, talking and playing with your kid. Take deep breaths and laugh today!

Please always feel free to reach out to us. We’d love to help you as you navigate this time with your child!

Getty image by Fizkes.

Originally published: March 31, 2021
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