Helping young children catch up after years lost to the pandemic 

Children who were born during the pandemic spent a lot of time in their early years looking at screens. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE – Born during the Covid-19 pandemic in the middle of 2020, Luis* spent the first two years of his life at home being cared for mainly by his grandmother, while his mother, Coleen*, worked long hours to support the family financially.

The pandemic restrictions meant Luis had few opportunities for social interaction and instead spent a lot of time looking at screens. When he started school at the age of two, he had a limited vocabulary and lacked the confidence to speak, preferring to remain silent or use gestures.

His predicament is not uncommon among young children who were born and raised during the pandemic, who had spent their early years in a world with movement curbs, social distancing and measures to reduce contact.

The pandemic’s impact on children’s learning and development has been evident. In the United States, a nationwide survey by the University of Oregon’s Center for Translational Neuroscience of the pandemic’s impact on children under five years old found 78 per cent of caregivers reporting their child as exhibiting behaviour problems as early as July 2020.

A study by the United Kingdom’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills reported that young children’s communication and language development were affected by the pandemic, with many education providers noticing delays in speech and language.

Locally, the Child Development Unit at the National University Hospital noted a year ago that it was receiving more referrals for problems such as speech delays, poor social engagement, signs of autism and short attention span during the pandemic, probably as a result of excessive screen time.

The Singapore Government has acknowledged the impact of social restrictions on young children. In his recent speech at the National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said masks no longer had to be worn indoors, especially in schools, as children must be able to see the facial expressions of their teachers and peers to learn and grow. For children to develop language and communication skills, it is important for them to be able to observe lip movements and mouth shapes.

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Nonetheless, people should not underestimate the resilience of young children and their ability to adapt to new situations. They are able to unlearn and relearn new habits and ways of living, especially if they have strong and stable relationships with their parents or caregivers. As life returns to normal gradually, parents and caregivers can help their young children catch up on their language development.

What can parents and caregivers do to bolster their children’s language development skills if they have been impacted by the pandemic?

The home environment offers plenty of learning opportunities.

Emphasise speech and language in everyday interactions with your child. According to the Abecedarian Approach, an evidence-based strategy that emphasises language development to stimulate child development and growth, any daily activity can be an occasion for rich language stimulation.

For example, narrate to your child what you are doing during everyday activities such as cooking, doing household chores or cleaning up. This introduces your child to a wider range of vocabulary and will facilitate the development of his language skills, even if he has not yet learnt to speak.

Encourage your child to speak by responding warmly when he tries to communicate, and extend your conversation with him. For example, respond to a toddler’s babbling with proper speech to develop his language capacity. Ask older children questions or get them to describe what they are doing and how they feel.

You can start conversations with your child simply by talking about what you both notice in the environment around you.

Take part in imaginative play as role-playing is beneficial not only for fostering children’s creativity, but also for developing their language skills.

Engage in conversational reading with your child. Instead of merely reading the words on the page, talk about the characters or pictures in the book, or ask for his thoughts and feelings about what he has read. This deeper engagement helps to stimulate cognitive development in children, nurture a closer relationship with their parents and support the development of their language and literacy skills.

Luis, Coleen and his grandmother now attend KidStart, a national programme that supports young children under six years old who come from lower-income families.

Through KidStart, they have learnt how to engage Luis in more conversations during daily tasks such as eating and bathing, and describing what is around them. Though Coleen initially felt self-conscious at having to initiate conversations constantly, she eventually got used to it. With time, Luis gained confidence in speaking and his vocabulary has developed to an age-appropriate level.

The early years are a crucial period for the development of life skills and strong relationships, laying the foundation for the rest of a child’s life. While the pandemic may have presented a setback, parents can take heart in the fact that children continue to learn and grow by engaging with what is around them.

Parents and caregivers can help simply by being present with their children. Even small pockets of time dedicated to them will help children form secure attachments and develop confidence. Together, parents and their children will be able to face whatever situation comes their way next.

*The family is on the KidStart Home Visitation programme and their names have been changed to ensure confidentiality.

  • Puspavalli Namasivayam is an early childhood consultant with KidStart Singapore Limited.

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