Shutterstock 134990144 Blog 1

More children reported with delayed language development: what help is available for families?

I wonder how many of us heaved a big sigh of relief when we heard the announcement a couple of weeks ago confirming that mandatory health visitor checks in the early years were to continue.

It came at a time when we were still reflecting on evidence from the yearly survey of health visitors carried out by Institute of Health Visiting.  In the last survey, carried out in 2016 72% of Health Visitors reported that they were seeing an increase in children with delayed language development. The percentage does, in fact, go up year on year – each year more Health Visitors are reporting an increase.

This evidence, submitted as part of the Bercow: Ten Years On review of support for children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) has got us thinking. There’s always speculation over the reasons for this reported increase. Ask your average person on the street and they’ll tell you it’s because families just don’t talk any more, there’s too much technology, lives are too busy. Certainly, these environmental factors do play a part, but evidence for this is still scarce. But there may also be other reasons.

The link between delayed language and disadvantage is now well known – over 50% of children in some areas have poor speech, language and communication. We know also that the gap between children living in deprived areas and their peers in more affluent areas starts early. Analysis shows that a child in the lowest income group is on average 17.4 months behind a child in the highest income group at age three. With rising child poverty, the number of children with delayed language is likely to increase. So perhaps the Heath Visitor reports are not surprising.

The way that checks in the early years are carried out has changed over recent years – could the increase in children with delayed language be because there are simply more health visitors?  Or that practitioners are just better at identifying these children? Checks at two years of age have been around for a while, but in 2015 the integrated two and a half year review was introduced. Logistically, this hasn’t always been easy to do, but what has been highlighted is the benefit of health and education practitioners making joint decisions, drawing on both sets of knowledge and skill, and sharing expertise.

Whatever the reason for the increase, the mandatory checks are a crucial way of ensuring children’s language difficulties are picked up as soon as possible. Why does this matter? For two main reasons – firstly early language is crucial to later development – children’s language as early as two predicts how well they will do later at school. But also, because early intervention works – the earlier the better.

However, what’s most important of all is that once identified, something takes place to boost children’s delayed language. Without information for families and support in place, identifying any difficulties is pretty useless.

Ten years ago, the need for better information and support for parents was one of the key themes of a national review of provision for children speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). Since then, there’s been a Government spotlight on the early years, but given the concerns health visitors raise about the increase in children with delayed language, now is the time to take stock. We need to find out if and how the picture of support for children’s early language has changed. What information is available for families? How easily available is it?

That’s why were carrying out Bercow: Ten Years On. Take part in our survey, share your views. Help us to make sure we have the evidence needed to take action.