Early language as important as obesity as a sign of child wellbeing

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Early language development must be prioritised as a child wellbeing indicator to close the gap between children in low-income and better-off households, according to a new study.

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The Early Intervention Foundation is calling for early language development to be prioritised as a child wellbeing indicator alongside issues such as vaccination, obesity, and mental health

Research published by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) highlights the impact of family economic circumstances and disadvantage on a child’s ability to develop speech, language and communication skills.

In order to ensure children with language development problems do not fall through the cracks, EIF is calling for early language development to be prioritised as a child wellbeing indicator alongside issues such as vaccination, obesity, and mental health.

The report suggests income-related gaps in children’s language can be detectable by the age of 18 months, and often increase throughout early development.

Early language difficulties affect between 5 and 8 per cent of British children, but over 20 per cent of those growing up in low-income households, according to the study.

The research found the impact of this gap persists throughout childhood, suggesting that language capabilities at the age of three are predictive of language capabilities at age nine, and children with poor vocabulary skills at the age of five are more likely to have reading difficulties, mental health problems or be unemployed as an adult.

The EIF also found that children living in better-off families will hear more words from their parents than less well-off children, and that their parents are more likely to use more complex language, ask children questions, and engage in verbal activities such as sharing a book or playing rhyming games.

Over the course of primary school, the language skills of less well-off children who started with higher achievement scores are overtaken by better-off children who originally had lower scores, and by the end of secondary school, better-off children consistently complete more GCSEs and attain higher scores, the report said.

Dr Jo Casebourne, chief executive of the EIF, said, ‘Our research makes clear the consequences of failing to close these income-related gaps in language development: a whole group of children who will face unnecessary extra challenges in achieving good school results, entering employment, and maintaining good mental health into their adult lives. For this reason, supporting early language development should be put at the heart of any social mobility strategy.

‘Crucially, the evidence shows that early intervention may be the most important of all: children whose home-learning environment improves as they approach school age don’t see the same benefits as children who were receiving more stimulation and interaction at an earlier age. The first three years are critical – by the time a child starts school, the damage to their future prospects may already be done.’

As a result of the findings of the report, EIF is also calling for:

  • more testing of the effectiveness of interventions designed to support or improve children’s language development;
  • development of a shared terminology and criteria for identifying and describing language development problems, to enable effective monitoring and diagnosis, and a consistent response, and;
  • greater clarity from local authorities and schools on what they are offering to parents of children with language development problems.

Dr Kirsten Asmussen, co-author of the paper and EIF expert on early child development, said, ‘The income-related gap in children’s language development is not a new story. However, knowledge about the magnitude of this gap and ways of reducing it is. We believe that prioritising early language development as a national wellbeing indicator is a vital first step in putting this knowledge into action.'

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