Children usually start producing words and phrases independently and intentionally around the age of two, but this may differ for individual children. Around this age, any speech and communication delays should not cause too much of an alarm if the child develops well in other areas, although it is possible at this early stage to identify emotional issues that might start affecting a child’s speech. The development of speech might be delayed or impaired due to reasons not directly related to child’s overall physical health, but rather to their emotional well-being.

Early Years practitioners are required by the EYFS to support the development of their children’s speech, language, and communication skills, and there are many effective ways to do so. It is also important that as an Early Years practitioner you are able to promptly identify any issues of concern related to your children’s speech and language development and consult them with the parents and other professionals. Understanding the relationship between speech development and a children’s emotional well-being is crucial to be able to decide on the best ways of supporting each child.

The connection between speech and self-expression

Speech is one of the most exquisite and advanced forms of self-expression. Very young children are masters of self expression, as they are not yet inhibited by external factors such as guilt, shame, or low self-confidence. From very early days they make sounds, cry, laugh, and play creatively without any fear of being judged or ridiculed. They will use variety of available tools such as their vocal cords, their lips and tongue, their fingers, their body, and they will imaginatively turn any everyday object into a toy that will help them express themselves and explore the world.

At this stage they do not need speech to be able to express themselves more than well using other means. However, if the child’s emotional development is negatively affected, they will most likely have self-expression problems in all areas including speech and vocal expression. Therefore, the key to noticing if a child’s speech is delayed due to emotional factors might be observing if they are able to express themselves freely and creatively in ways other than speech.

Emotional tensions and speech delays

Children’s speech and language development might be delayed due to emotional tensions they experience either at home, from their closest relatives, or at their nursery or place of care. The emotional disturbances need to be continuous or frequent enough for the child to develop problems with speech and communication. We are talking here about a situation where a child around or beyond the age of two predominantly produces simple sounds or syllables only, or their vocabulary is limited to a few words or phrases and there is no or minimal progress observed throughout weeks.

What usually triggers the delay is the kind of relationship the parents or carers have with their child. Too much discipline and a lack of partnership-type communication might cause speech delays from very early days. Although the child is still very young, they observe and respond to our communication, and it is the quality that is crucial.

If we speak to the child even while they are still babies, offer the right kind of intimacy, ask them what they prefer the most, and allow them to choose what they want or to demonstrate their preferences to us freely, then they will feel they are loved, that we respect their choices, and that we allow them to decide about themselves. Such a relationship encourages children to demonstrate their personality, explore the world the way they feel is best for them, and own their experiences having adults as guides or facilitators.

On the other hand, when there are too many “no” words around, or too many boundaries limiting the child’s possibilities to explore the world and take their risks safely, the child may become emotionally withdrawn and develop low self-confidence. They might develop an understanding that no matter what they do and say, no one will take them seriously, so they prefer to stay silent.

As adults we tend to give children a clear sign that they are “just kids” and that they should know their place in the adults’ world. Unfortunately, such attitudes are still prevalent and many adults adopt them without even knowing it (they might be just repeating the pattern from their own childhoods).

How to identify if a delay is related to emotional issues

Here is a few questions a professional might ask themselves while observing a child to understand the nature of their speech delay. If the answer to most of them is “no” then it might mean there are emotional issues causing the delay:

  • Does the child play creatively using a range of toys and resources including their own body?
  • Does the child engage in any sort of activities that might help them express themselves?
  • Does the child like to experiment creatively with tools, objects and the environment in general?
  • Is the child afraid of making mistakes, damaging equipment or making a mess?
  • How vocal is the child? Does the child play with sounds and syllables, like to experiment with their own speech organs, and enjoy discovering new sounds and ways of making sounds using their body?
  • Does the child interact with other children and adults and builds positive relationships, or is the child rather withdrawn and prefers to play alone?

The questions above are only guidelines and should not be treated as finite and indicative of speech development. They should not be used in separation either, but rather holistically. Only then may they help you see the bigger picture and get a meaningful insight into your children’s emotional world and their speech development.

There are many effective ways to support children’s speech and language development that all Early Years practitioners should include in their everyday practice — you can read more in “How to Support Speech Development in Children.”

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Vito Matt & Magdalena Matt are Curriculum Developers and Instructional Designers for e-learning courses, interactive workshops and conferences, and educational mobile app games.

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