A speech and language pathologist and audiologist, Kutlwelo Mariri, says that limited interaction with group peers that happened as a result of Covid-19 restrictions has affected the development of speech in children.
Last year, as the first cases of Covid-19 cases were reported, President Mokgweetsi Masisi imposed a national lockdown for one-and-a-half months – which lockdown included a curfew that prohibited unauthorised movement between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. During the first week of this lockdown, parliament convened for a special session to debate the Emergency Powers Regulations, almost all of which were passed in their original form. The Regulations made statutory provisions for compulsory use of face masks and social distancing.
By itself, the lockdown necessitated the closure of schools, including pre-schools, for six weeks. Mariri says that, “as is still the case now”, the wearing of masks poses serious challenges as children cannot communicate properly with their parents.
“The anxiety – or stress, also leads to limited social interaction or stimulation, which in turn leads to speech delay,” she adds.
She runs a private healthcare clinic in Maruapula, Gaborone called Mariri Therapists & Audiologists. Pre-Covid, she states, “many children came for speech assessment and therapy.” With Covid, however, her clinic has seen a huge decline in the number of children accessing speech therapy services. A related development has been the withdrawal from school of some children by parents who fear that the children might contract the virus. Mariri cautions that lack of professional intervention automatically worsens speech conditions that needs urgent attention.
The acquisition of language is very important in the overall development of a child. That is particularly the case in today’s school environment where, as Mariri points out, the curriculum is both complex and language-loaded.
“A child with speech and language delay may struggle to understand concepts, instructions and to even write down their thoughts,” says Mariri, who is a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow and attended the Business Leadership Institute at the University of Texas. “This will make learning difficult for the child. We always tell parents that a child can be intelligent but that speech and language delay may lead to poor performance.”
With regard to delayed development of social skills, she says that a child with such problem may show serious frustration: “This normally leads to parents reporting that the child is aggressive simply because they cannot express themselves.
Given that pre-schoolers spend about as much time at school as they do at home and that either place should aid their learning, Mariri stresses the importance of both parents and teachers playing their part. In the case of parents and guardians, she recommends doing simple things like cutting back on television time and allowing more time for play and interaction and teaching a child that language is a tool that can be used to control the action of others. In the case of the latter she gives, as an example, a parent asking a child to give him or her a glass of water rather than the reverse in which the parent is the giver and closes off opportunity for educational linguistic interaction.
“Communication is a two- and not one-way thing, such as when the child or adult is speaking without giving the other a chance,” says Mariri who is also the founder of Ambrose Academy, a special-education school which is a sister entity to Mariri Therapists & Audiologists.
The educator hat enables her special insight into the finer points of the learning process. Addressing herself to the question of what teachers can do to aid language development in children, Mariri says that they should have conversations of at least 15 minutes per day with their pupils about the latter’s favourite movies, hobbies or things that interest them generally.
She counsels that if a parents are concerned about speech delay in their children, they should seek immediate professional help.
Next to parents and teachers is a third and equally important party in a child’s acquisition of language and development of social skills: peers. From whom do small children better learn language: peers or family members? Mariri says that children learn from peers if skills like joint attention and turn- taking are used, adding that “in the absence of these skills, then learning may be compromised, leading to speech delay.” A form of early social and communicative behaviour, joint attention is when two people focus on an object or event for the purpose of interacting with each other. On the other hand, turn-taking is the skill of knowing when to start and finish a turn in a conversation.
“Parents should be intentional in using simple short sentences or words and creating opportunities for learning speech and language,” says Mariri, adding that parents and guardians need to appreciate that one has to be intentional in stimulating a child to learn and develop language.
On the whole, she laments how the pandemic has affected developmental milestones like speech development and worries about the long-term effects in children’s learning abilities.
“Parents must watch out for red flags and act swiftly to minimize the effects of speech delay,” she says. “The pandemic has caused so much anxiety but this does not mean that we should just give up on the development of our children. We should find a safe way of continuing to stimulate our children and make sure that the work continues amid this raging pandemic.”
Botswana’s children are not the only ones suffering this catastrophe. In the United Kingdom, the Education Endowment Foundation has published research that says that measures taken to combat the pandemic have deprived the youngest children of social contact and experiences essential for increasing vocabulary. The research says that having less or no contact with grandparents, social distancing, no play dates, and the wearing of face coverings in public have left children less exposed to conversations and everyday experiences. Of 58 primary schools that were surveyed across England, 76 percent said pupils starting school in September 2020 needed more support with communication than in previous years, 96 percent said that they were concerned about pupils’ speech-and-language development while 56 percent of parents were concerned about their child starting at school following the lockdown. In another UK study, 20-25 percent of children aged between four and five years just starting school in 2020 needed extra help with language skills, compared with those starting school in 2019.