If a parent is concerned about their child’s physical development, all they need in order to confirm that the child is growing well for their age is a measuring tape and scales. They can then check height and weight against widely available developmental charts. If you are a parent living in the UK, you will remember the little red book given by the NHS at the birth of each child, where being on or around the 50th percentile suggests that a child is just fine for their age.
But increasingly it is cognitive development, in addition to physical, that is the focus of parents’ attention. Language in particular is the most salient manifestation that the young toddler is making headway in the mental world. And for good reason. Strong early language skills are predictors of academic performance, as well as of overall cognitive development.
It is natural that parents will celebrate the child’s linguistic achievements, from the first acts of naming of the toys around her to the first expressions of affection. It is also natural that some parents may worry if they feel that their child is not progressing quickly enough. 'My toddler is only speaking single words. Is that OK for her age? Some other children at the playgroup are already telling each other stories!'. Perhaps you have made similar comments yourself, or heard some of your friends express their concern?
Yet it can be frustrating that, unlike with height or weight, there is little that parents can do themselves to find out how well their child is developing in terms of language skills. The ability to assess this lies in the hands of specialised professionals such as speech and language therapists or developmental and educational psychologists. These professionals draw upon their extensive experience in order to make complex evaluations. They often use book-based manually administered assessments. These assessments – and the accompanying developmental charts – cost hundreds of pounds each and require training with statistics and test-design in order to administer and interpret correctly. As a precaution against misuse, no-one can buy these tests unless they have a relevant professional qualification.
This situation may leave many parents feeling dis-empowered and stressed. In many cases, the anxiety and wait will be unnecessary, because children that lag behind in the early years are simply ‘late talkers’ who will catch-up with their peers in early primary schools. While in some other cases, a significant delay in receiving a proper assessment may have an actual negative effect, if indeed the child did need therapy.
What is the way forward then? First, parents need to be empowered. This includes giving them the knowledge and the tools to monitor their child’s cognitive as well as physical development. Second, educational technology needs to step in so that assessments and developmental charts become accessible from the comfort of the living room, with the click of a button, immediately when they are needed. There is a vast number of Apps that aim to teach children vocabulary or to help them learn new languages. These Apps score very highly on fun and usability, but they lack the technical precision to accurately place a child’s skills on a developmental chart. The latter, however, is exactly the knowledge that researchers and developmental scientists can bring. The hope is that new synergies between these two communities, EdTech and academia, will provide Apps that are fun and easy to use, and yet they give a reliable assessment of a child’s development, in a way that can help parents take the decisions they need to.
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