By Lora Baker (she/her), speech language pathologist, Powell River
FOR MOST of you reading this, memories of sending your kids to Kindergarten, or maybe even pieces of your own Kindergarten experience, linger with mixed emotions. Perhaps something between excitement, nerves, and wonder? September 2021 was an exciting time for our family. Our oldest child was heading to Kindergarten; her first grade-school experience. Even with the burgeoning excitement and anticipation, I couldn’t help notice that we, along with other families of “covid cohort” students, were experiencing things a little differently this year.
Fast forward through a summer of outdoor, distanced playdates to September, when masks were not mandatory for K–3 students, but they were for school staff and for students Grade 4 and up. Most of the students, including my daughter, wore masks daily. The fall went fairly smoothly, with the kids and parents in the honeymoon phase of their school careers. I saw my five-year-old loving school and loving the time she got to spend with peers, thanks to the efforts of her teacher who did an incredible job creating opportunities for learning and connection.
Right around Christmas I started to wonder, worry, and ask questions. I noticed my daughter asking about things her peers were saying and describing minor, but concerning, social conflicts. As I talked to other parents and educators, I recognized familiar patterns in their Kindergarten experiences. Many “COVID kids” didn’t know how to ask a group of students to join their game; they struggled to join their peers in play. They didn’t know how to voice feelings of frustration, sadness, or even glee. Social problem-solving was a challenge. Even making requests from teachers, adults, or other students was hard.
My worry and questions were getting louder and more emphatic: did my daughter and her COVID cohort peers have delayed social language skills? I started to wonder if my daughter and her classmates were in fact suffering from the effects of COVID on social interaction and social development? This isn’t a far stretch, considering this cohort of kids didn’t see a stranger’s mouth or smile for two years.
Let me be clear: I am not starting a mask debate. I believe in wearing masks to prevent and slow the spread of the COVID virus; masks save lives. My goal here is to increase awareness and start the discussion about how we can mitigate and compensate for the negative impacts on children’s communication skills.
As speech language pathologists (SLPs), we often talk about an individual’s communication toolbox. Most, but not all, of us have verbal speech in addition to non-verbal communication tools like gestures, facial expressions, written language, and body language.
Mask-wearing and covered faces are just a drop in the bucket of the impending tsunami of effects COVID will have on the social skills and language skills of COVID cohort children. A huge concern is the limited amount of time these children spent around their peers or unfamiliar adults, people other than immediate family, while practising social distancing for two years. Many of these children had limited extra-curricular activities, limited playdates or time with peers, and even missed out on gatherings with friends and extended family.
As a former teacher and current SLP, I have spent a lot of time in classrooms and have been working with preschool and elementary students for years. Preschool years are the primary years for speech and language development and these children have clearly missed some important opportunities.
I know in our house, spending time isolated with our family with no playgrounds and no extra-curriculars lead to increased screen time. For most of the pandemic the only accent my kids heard was Peppa Pig’s high-pitched English banter. The number and diversity of linguistic models they had would be devastatingly smaller when compared to kids who were preschool age before COVID.
Furthermore, spending time mostly at home with our own family unit means parents don’t get to see their child interacting or playing with peers. This affects friendships and has also led to many parents missing red flags in their children’s development when looking at age-appropriate norms. Parents who have had limited social contact may not realize their child is not saying as many words as other kids the same age. It is not surprising that many SLPs and counsellors have noticed a significant increase in the number of referrals in the last couple of years for Kindergarten students.
Recently, in a meeting with SLPs from across the country, we discussed this very topic. Researchers, experts, clinicians, and parents share my concern; so much so that there is talk of adjusting the guidelines and milestones for early childhood speech and language development.
Conversations with friends and colleagues is part of what inspired my reflection and ultimately writing this article. Leanne Gahan, a long-time Kindergarten and Grade 1 teacher, echoes many of my observations and notes, “Social communication was already a big focus in Kindergarten and Grade 1, but the amount and frequency of social situations most children have experienced has decreased, depending on the home situation during the pandemic, leading to students needing more practise and experiences to learn these skills.”
I am not writing this to add to the long list of concerns and fears parents and educators have about COVID. I’m simply looking to start the conversation and hopefully increase awareness that these cohorts of children may need a little extra support, instruction, guidance—and a little bit of extra patience—as they journey through school and life.
We can help to close the language gap with some simple strategies. Conversation with kids is the best tool to improve language skills. Set time aside daily to talk to kids with no distractions and take turns asking and answering questions. During conversations ask open-ended questions instead of yes/no questions, and be sure to model good listening with non-verbal signals like nodding and smiling. Discuss scenarios in your life and theirs when connecting with someone else was challenging. Talk about the solutions you figured out for social conflicts.
Another friend and colleague, Elaine Maxwell, an elementary school counsellor, reminded me, “We are relational beings, and this is not irreversible. We can connect again and teach connection.”
Despite sharing concerning observations, these two, and all my colleagues, share my predominately positive and hopeful outlook for the future of these students. As therapists and educators, we do what we do because we believe in the principles of neuroplasticity and the resilience of children. I trust the brilliant minds, insightful programs, and supportive communities to rally behind these children and provide exceptional, focused, and direct instruction around social communication, interaction, and language skills. I’ve watched how our school teams have modified, adapted, and adjusted to restrictions, constant changes, and the unique needs of students during the pandemic. I have complete faith.
I bet the COVID cohort of children will be one of the most resilient generations we’ve seen. When you’ve waited with your parents for two hours to get into Costco, only to find there are no samples, or discover your Kindergarten teacher has a nose piercing that was hidden under their mask for months, your skin must thicken! If nothing else, we will have a generation of the best hand-washers the world has ever seen!