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Tackling the ‘Word Gap’: Why relationships matter more than words

"The point of greatest leverage for social mobility is the very earliest time in life. What happens between the ages of zero and three. Primarily that means what happens at home."

The current interest and policy attention on increasing pre-school children’s literacy and communication skills is important and timely. But the focus is misguided.

Driven by statistics such as ‘Children with poor vocabulary at age five are more than twice as likely to be unemployed when they are aged 34’, the current priority seems to focus on ‘numbers of words learnt’ through any given intervention.

Granted, it is easier to measure ‘numbers of words learnt’ than the quality of interactions between parent and child – and therefore far more attractive to a government wishing to make quick impact. But what about the importance of empowering families to make sustainable, lasting change?

A well developed and focused app may support a four year olds vocabulary to increase by 50%: from 3000 to 4500 words, for example - but this apparent success in improving a child’s communication skills underestimates the importance of foundational social connections that form the basis for any subsequent learning.

The emotional health of the family, the strength of the relationships and healthy attachment this leads to - is fundamental. We need to focus on supporting parents with their OWN social and emotional competencies before we can address their support of a child’s own emotional health and consequent language and communication skills.

Humans learn through shared attention and connection (Beard, Alex Natural Born Learners Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017).

The ‘serve and return’ interactions between parent and child that form the brain architecture will be foundational for all future learning- as well as leading to good mental health and wellbeing.

What does this mean for where our focus, time and money should be invested?

We need to take two angles:

  1. Early intervention parenting programmes (both pre and post-natal)

  2. Supporting early years’ settings to work in true partnership with the parents in their communities.

Cognitive relational programmes such as the Nurturing Programme provide the models for healthy relationships, the social and emotional skills and competencies, a safe and nurturing environment for parents and Early Years staff alongside the opportunity to acquire supportive behavioural strategies.

A well-trained parenting practitioner can communicate to parents in an empowering way, emphasising how important they are in the development of their baby’s mind, language and communication skills.

So by all means, let’s consider how we can learn, virtually, through technology and the use of apps - allowing more parents to be reached over a longer period of time. But we must make sure that we don’t do this instead of investing in parents themselves - and the crucial relationships that they build with their children that are the foundation for future learning and happiness. We must prioritise these first in order to promote truly flourishing Home Learning Environments.

Bea Stevenson

Head of Education


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