As New Brunswick’s departments of education and health continue to deflect responsibility for reimposing masks in schools, the province’s chief medical officer of health has noted a seemingly high percentage of preschoolers having communication problems.
Earlier this week, when asked about the reintroduction of mandatory masking in schools, Dr Jennifer Russell said she was taking a number of things into consideration.
“We recently learned that 17.9% of students entering kindergarten currently have communication difficulties, and this is due to Early Childhood Assessment data,” she said.
But do masks cause speech and language delays in children?
“Anecdotally, yes, we’re hearing from teachers and speech pathologists reporting that there seem to be a lot more children with speech and communication needs,” said Caroline Erdos, Speech-Language Pathology Advisor for Speech-Language & Audiology Canada. (BAG)
But it’s still too early to tell if this increase has anything to do with masks, Erdos said.
Monika Molnar, a professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in language development in children, agrees.
She said the pandemic has prompted a number of studies on the effects of masks on the development of children’s communication skills.
While the full effects likely won’t be known for a few years, Molnar said early indications are that the masks “can negatively affect language development.”
Molnar said young children learn language by listening to sounds and observing the movement of the speaker’s tongue and mouth. They also pick up the context of facial expressions. If the loudspeakers are hidden, “the children miss half the signals”.
She said the masks also restrict how a speaker moves their jaw or mouth, affecting sound quality. Add to that the muffling effect and children don’t always hear the purest form of speech.
Molnar said it’s important to balance the need for masks with the resulting communication difficulties.
“Two things can be true at the same time: (1) we need to wear masks to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and (2) wearing masks can have negative effects on language/communication development,” Molnar said.
Erdos said that although masks may delay speech and language in preschoolers, the impact “may not be as great as we think.”
She said there are a number of other pandemic-related factors that could also be at play, including physical distancing, social isolation and higher levels of anxiety.
Staying more than six feet apart can limit the visual cues children use to help them develop speech and language. Additionally, as families have been told to limit contact over the past two years, some children may not have been exposed to a variety of speakers — which Erdos says is important when learning. to communicate.
And the communication they get at home may have been impacted – even reduced – by the anxiety and pressures of the pandemic. Erdos said the children may not have received enough quality face-to-face interactions with their parents.
In some cases, she said parents might not even know their preschoolers were falling behind their future classmates. She says SAC has a number of online sites Resources and ways to check if a child is reaching milestones.
Some more at risk
Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird, professor emeritus in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Dalhousie University, said children who already have difficulty learning communication skills will be hit the hardest by the pandemic.
“I don’t think the current situation is necessarily causing difficulties with speech, language or social interaction, but it may exacerbate those difficulties,” Kay-Raining Bird said.
“Because of their pre-school experiences during a pandemic, more children may not have learned some of these skills – for example, a study in Ireland showed that children may not be able to share and to take turns as well as before the pandemic due to reduced interactions with children of the same age.
Now that mask mandates are lifted in most parts of the country, Molnar suggests parents of young children catch up. She said they should increase the amount of face-to-face communication with their children and make sure the children look up to them when they talk.
Erdos also recommends increasing a child’s interactions with “competent language models.”
She says most kids will probably be able to catch up to their peers.
Current statistics not available
The Department for Education has been asked to provide more details on the learning difficulties identified by Russell earlier this week.
It turns out that the numbers she used were for the 2019-20 school year and would have predated the pandemic.
Department spokeswoman Danielle Elliott said statistics for this year are not yet available.
She said the 2022-23 budget includes funding that “will result in additional speech-language pathologists, among many other specialists such as social workers, behavioral intervention mentors, guidance counsellors, resource teachers and specialists. -assessment and intervention resources”.