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Editorial: Mitigating the effect of the pandemic on speech development


DTH Photo Illustration. The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging educational and social development in children.

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed many difficulties on the nation. Among those obstacles is changes in the education system, social interactions and, as the pandemic persists, development in children. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just recently updated its developmental milestones this year for the first time since 2004. 

Developmental milestones consist of skills where children grow in their interactions, such as taking a first step, smiling for the first time and waving “bye-bye." These developmental milestones are assessed in children at different stages, from the first two months to five years of age. 

Children reach these milestones through basic development, such as play and learning. While the pandemic and updated developmental milestones from the CDC aren't necessarily related, it does spark a conversation about the pandemic's future and its effects on child development. 

The ways in which the nation has dealt with obstacles in K-12 schools has been unprecedented. From remote and hybrid models of learning, mask mandates and plexiglass screens in speech classrooms, there are plenty of new procedures of safety and precautions. 

While the CDC’s updates for developmental milestones raise concern among educators of all kinds, there are positives to address. The update includes changes for parents as a part of their new model, “Learn the Signs. Act Early." 

Additionally, the CDC’s updates are more inclusive, denoting milestones that include what “most” children of a certain age group should achieve, which jumped from 50 to 75 percent among children. 

While this may ease concern among parents or pediatricians when assessing children, Elizabeth Cook, a speech-language pathologist clinical fellow, worries this may be, in part, a negative thing. 

“When we look at guidelines, we want it to be … like a screening tool, we want it to over identify, so that we are getting all the kids who need help … and maybe a couple that don’t, so that we can get all those kids in to be able to test them … and see, does this kid need services?," said Cook, who is currently working with preschool students. 

Lowering standards may cause kids who need the help to get lost in the mix.

“These kids might miss months of therapy, or years of therapy, worst case scenario," Cook said.

Masks produce muffled speech sounds, and children still developing their speech and language are struggling most to produce fricative sounds, sounds that require air flow, such as the “f,” “s” and “z." 

Educators are seeing these specific struggles in producing speech sounds and social awkwardness with the introduction of masks. Along with communication and language in the new guidelines, there is a social-emotional, cognitive and physical aspect to consider in the child’s development. 

Angie Granrud, elementary special education teacher, shares her concern for how the masks may have worsened social anxiety in students who previously struggled in social situations. 

"Young students may be less apt to share, or say, if a teacher were to ask a student, 'what did you say?' Timid students may be cautious to repeat themself."

Both Cook and Granrud share that for students working on their speech, they have been able to set up systems with plexiglass screens and clear masks to be able to see mouth expressions and articulations safely. Also, Granrud mentions how her school of employment has implemented daily interventions of 15 to 20 minutes with students who may need that time. 

This new method has allowed them to see how children are making progress.

The intervention period is called "What I Need." Granrud is grateful that school leaders value these new intervention periods enough to be investing in them. 

While Cook admits that masks limit communication and that it is “hard to balance safety and connection,” she offers tips to help kids in their language and communication. Cook said interacting with children more will often help them develop at a similar rate than peers. 

Isolation caused by the pandemic has also created concern among educators and parents as we wonder what the future effects of social isolation and the comfort in it may have on these generations. 

In an effort to support all students, regardless of where they are in speech development, it is imperative that primary educators implement options such as plexiglass desks or clear masks in their classrooms. Only then can we begin to mitigate the social effects of the pandemic on student learning.

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