How Language Impacts Early Childhood Development

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will explain the ways in which language impacts cognitive, emotional, social, physical, and language development in children ages 2-5 and provide examples for each developmental domain.

Language and Early Childhood

Language impacts cognitive, emotional, social, physical, and language development in children ages 2-5. Structural language skills (like understanding sounds, vocabulary, and meaning), as well as practical communication tools (like using courteous manners and nonverbal communication effectively) are both influential in a child's development. Practicing effective language use, making sufficient progress toward increasing vocabulary, and improving communication skills are powerful strategies in improving the growth and development of children. By expressing their thoughts and feelings with language to others and receiving these messages from others, children can learn to function and interact in the world.

In fact, language is so critical to child development that a statistically significant proportion of students who struggle with learning disabilities, mental illness, or behavioral disorders have a dual diagnosis with some form of language impairment. Let's take a look at some more detail about how language learning impacts every developmental domain for preschool-age children.

Cognitive Development

Cognitive development refers to measurements of intellectual or academic ability through the process of learning to think, the development of the brain, the ability to follow instructions or be taught to process information, and other issues related to thinking and learning. Within this concept of cognitive development, it becomes clear that difficulty processing language would deeply impact a child's cognitive development.

Once children enter preschool, nearly all their instruction is through the verbal use of language. This helps pave the way for later reading and writing instruction. Children who are behind in this critical learning stage of understanding language may struggle later on with literacy development. Preschool teachers can help mitigate some of these negative impacts by perhaps being the first to notice, identify, assess, or diagnose a language processing disorder in a child. Preschool teachers can be mindful of indicators that a child struggles with language development and be prepared to make referrals to speech therapists, audiologists, and language pathologists. Because the teacher knows the children so well, they can become informants to these other experts and to parents, providing critical information that can guide the diagnosis and treatment to best suit the needs of the child.

Emotional Development

Understanding an adequate use of language is critical in a child's emotional development, because this is the primary way we express ourselves, articulate our needs, and provide emotional support and reciprocation to loved ones. After age two, children are increasingly less likely to rely on a temper tantrum to solicit assistance in the goal of having their needs met. Children with language processing disorders may be less able to articulate their emotional state to others or interpret the emotional expressions of others they receive. This can cause delays in emotional development and the inability to understand what they are feeling.

One really effective way preschool teachers can assist with the emotional development in children, especially children who have language processing issues, is by creating exercises at school to help identify and articulate the wide range of human emotion. Using emoji symbols and other popular illustrations, preschool teachers can provide opportunities for students to identify their feelings from a chart. Preschool is also a chance for students to practice interacting and expressing themselves to others including authority figures and peers.

Social Development

Language impacts the social development of children in similar ways as it impacts emotional development. Sometimes social development can mask problems with language learning. For instance, when students seem very shy, they may actually struggle with communication or understanding others. Some students with language processing problems may appear uninterested in conversations with their peers, not because they are anti-social, but because they struggle to understand what the conversation is about.

Preschool teachers can take the opportunity to provide structured parallel play for these students, where they can play alongside each other to practice social interaction, but not necessarily have to communicate verbally. Teachers can also help identify when a personality difference may appear as a diagnosable language disorder. Much like with the identification of issues in cognitive development, teachers may be the first line of defense for students who are struggling with social development as a result of language processing.

Physical Development

Possibly the most apparent connection between difficulty learning language and physical development is a child's inability to articulate their needs in order to have them met. Physical development may be impeded in children who are unable to explain that they are hungry or sleepy or that they have some body aches that may indicate a physiological issue. Sometimes the cause of the language learning disorder is also likely to cause other physiological problems. For instance, in cases of child abuse and neglect, children may develop problems learning language along with any physical injuries they incur.

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