Children's language skills deteriorated because of Covid-19

Children’s language skills deteriorated because of Covid-19

Children’s language skills deteriorated because of Covid-19. Covid has had a major impact on children’s language skills, with the proportion of two-year-olds in England reaching the expected level of development at a four-year-low, new government figures have revealed.

The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities data shows the proportion of children in England at or above the expected level of development currently stands at 83 percent with communication skills, personal-social skills, fine motor, and problem-solving skills all at their lowest points in four years.

While some regions in England struggled to complete health visits during the pandemic, several managed to complete virtually the same number of two-year reviews this year as in 2019-20, but several regions recorded a significant decline in child development.

In Salford, the number of two-year reviews completed in 2020-21 was only four fewer than the 2,357 completed in 2019-20, yet the proportion of children at the expected level in all five areas of development dropped by more than 14 percent. Rotherham, Cambridgeshire, Stockport and Swindon, all recorded noticeable declines in child development.

Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation, said he is particularly concerned about the impact Covid has had on children’s communication skills.

“The major issue is around language development,” he said. “It has knock-on effects on so many other ways in which [children’s] development gets them ready for primary school.”

Children’s language skills deteriorated because of Covid-19. “Covid has deprived children – particularly those two-year-olds who are only months older than the pandemic itself – of everyday experiences where children’s active existence is enriched.”

Sam Pearson, pre-school manager at the Early Years at Lightcliffe center in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, said she had witnessed younger children “struggling” with their language and that “drastically” increasing waiting lists for speech and language therapy has caused further problems.

A parent of one of the children at the nursery was due to have a visit the day the UK entered a national lockdown in March 2020. Following the postponement, they have only just been seen. “This child became frustrated because they can’t use their voice,” Ms. Pearson told i. “They have very little language.”

She said she has witnessed children snatching toys from one another instead of asking for them and added that the two-year-olds joining the nursery now are “taking longer to adapt to being around other children” than in previous years.

Ms. Pearson has also noticed children aged three and four are returning to nursery struggling without their parents’ presence and less independent than when they left in March last year. “Now they expect you to do everything for them,” she said.

There are fears that Covid has also exacerbated an existing North-South divide in child development, but many children in the South have felt the effects of Covid too.

Going parent-free

For children returning to one early year setting in Woking, Surrey, where Halcyon Manton is a supply teacher while on extended maternity leave, “it is taking a very long time for them to settle”.

The early years’ practitioner recalls several children “screaming” when parents leave them for the day. Ms. Manton said that the emotional difficulties of some of the children she sees are partly related to the sudden transition from lockdown to a parent-free environment. “Separation from the parents has been key,” she said.

Mr. Hillman added that many families found an “alternative babysitter” in computers and tablets during lockdown with “evidence that children who were using those devices for significant amounts of time were coming back into early years settings…with a range of difficulties.” Concentration and interaction with other children have been hindered by increased screen time, he said.

The bigger picture

Professor Andrew Williams, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “we need to look at the bigger picture” when considering developmental issues caused by Covid. He pointed to a “decade of chronic underfunding” under austerity measures for an ever-widening social inequality during the pandemic.

“Cuts to funded opportunities to support children… especially those with developmental difficulties who come from poor families” have badly impacted poorer families, he said.

Sure Start – established in 1999 as a network of publicly-funded early years settings providing education, health and parenting support for disadvantaged families – is one programme to have suffered severe cuts, having its budget slashed by more than two-thirds since 2010 when spending totaled £1.8bn.

Research published by the Institute For Fiscal Studies (IFS) in August found that in the 2000s, Sure Start centers prevented over 13,000 adolescent hospitalizations a year, which is said to be an attribute of building strong immune systems and developing healthy minds in the long term in early years settings.

Professor Williams said that the widespread closure of Sure Start centers “has been very bad news for children”. Real-term spending for funded early years places, meanwhile, has fallen in recent years. This is seen particularly in the two-year-old entitlement that gives disadvantaged families in England 15 hours of funded childcare per week.

The Government calculates different hourly rates per eligible child to determine how much funding each local authority should receive. Authorities in London and the South East receive the most hourly funding per pupil, while those in the Midlands and the North receive the least.

North-South divide in childcare funding

Windsor and Maidenhead in the South East of England was the second least deprived local authority overall in 2019 and received hourly funding of £5.96 per pupil for the year 2020-21.

Calderdale, meanwhile, was just outside the upper third of the most deprived local authorities in 2019 and, along with every other authority in Yorkshire and the Humber and the North East, received the minimum amount of £5.28 per hour per pupil.

Children’s language skills deteriorated because of Covid-19

Mr. Hillman said tackling the language skills of children from different backgrounds when they are entering primary school “should be a high national priority”.

The data covers the period from April 2020 to March 2021 and was measured using results from the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, completed by health visitors at a child’s two-year review.

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