Avoiding the comparison of children and responding in a developmentally-appropriate way

I found myself reflecting on child development and peer pressure recently and thought back to when I used to run a toddler group in my local community. As soon as parents found out that I was an early years consultant, they would ask me questions about their children’s development. Sometimes I was able to share ideas or give them leaflets or signpost them to useful websites to help answer their query and sometimes we researched the answer together. The questions sometimes covered language and there was one underlying and often unsaid concern, ‘Is my child developing in a typical way compared with other children?’ The concern that their child was not matching up to their peers would often be the root of the discussion and could, in my view, also exacerbate the problem!  

Parents often feel under pressure to be the best parent in the history of humankind! To never get angry or upset, to keep a clean and tidy house and to have beautifully presented children who exceed in all areas of development!  ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ for some parents means that their children need to not only meet all developmental milestones but exceed them before they have even left the house! ‘My child has been talking in full sentences for weeks’ or ‘How young can you join Mensa?’

Before any parents reading this become offended, I will add that I know all this, because I have been there! I am not a perfect parent by any stretch of the imagination and sometimes I wanted to portray an image of a parent who was not just coping but thriving during early parenthood. I wanted my children to appear good and kind, behaving well and developing ‘typically’. After all, what would it say about me if they weren’t?  That I might talk the talk but I can’t walk the walk!  Of course, this is not the right way to think about parenthood. Yes, the way we parent our children will have an impact on their development, but we need to give ourselves some slack and not worry about what anyone else thinks.  

There are some easy ways that we can make our homes and settings communication rich to promote speech and language development, for example:

  • Talking about anything and everything with our children from birth
  • Using clear speech, simple phrases and role modelling language
  • Employing strategies such as Motherese (high pitched voice & simple words/phrases), recasting (rephrase things), expanding (adding to) and repetition to enable children to identify and decode meanings
  • Set up role-play and other environments which encourage talking 
  • Have real, genuine and respectful conversations with children   
  • Reading stories every day and using expressive language that includes rhythm and patterns
  • Modelling the ‘rules’ of language – e.g. turn taking, serve and return, listening
  • Introducing new vocabulary when appropriate
  • Using signs and gestures, picture cues and objects of reference to support language learning

We should learn to live with acceptance of ourselves and our children as they are, warts and all! I do not believe that the perfect parent exists – and that’s OK. It’s OK to make mistakes, it’s OK to have days when we only just get out of bed, or pull our hair into a ponytail without brushing it or let our children stay in their PJs all day!  It’s about living with integrity. Of course, we will try to be the best parent we can be, whilst being honest when we don’t quite manage it, or knowing when to ask for help if we need it. 

What we must not do as parents is compare children with each other or turn parenting into a competition. We mustn’t compare siblings in our own households and we mustn’t compare our little darlings with those who belong to our friends. All children develop differently so no two children will develop at the same rate. It is vital that we appreciate this and if we find ourselves or hear other parents comparing children stop and challenge it, albeit in a gentle way.  In comparing children we are putting pressure on ourselves as parents, we are disrespecting other parents and worse still, we are putting pressure on our children to be something other than themselves. This is not OK.

The same is true in our settings. It is all too easy to fall into the comparison trap and compare our children with each other. Instead, we need to be focusing on developmentally appropriate practice and not comparing children with each other but observing them within developmental milestones. It is important to note that in the 2012 Development Matters document, the ages and stages of development overlapped for a reason. Children’s learning and development is not linear and we cannot say that all children will do x, y, z by a certain time. It is more helpful to think about typical development for an age-range. Of course early intervention is important if we are concerned that a child might not be developing at the expected rate, however, we would base this decision on our detailed observations and discussions with other staff and parents and not on whether or not the child could do the same things as another child in their peer group. It is worth also looking at the new Birth to Five Matters guidance document which has revised the ages and stages and thinks about typical progression in development and learning as falling into 6 ranges. The idea is that practitioners can choose the range that they feel fits with the child’s development and use this range to consider how to further support the unique child in terms of positive relationships and enabling environments. 

So when it comes to speech and language development, what is expected? Children tend to develop in both their understanding as well as in their language use and as the table below by Dr Catherine Adams shows, children will go through different stages in learning to communicate and talk. As I have already shared, all children will develop at different rates, so it is important to use this information as a guide rather than an exact prescription. One child may string two words together when they are two years old, whereas another child may still use single words and that’s OK. Both are within the realms of typical. When thinking about developmental milestones I also find it helpful to refer to the Communication Trust’s Universally Speaking booklet which outlines typical expectations in ages and stages with regard to children’s communication development. 

Speech and language development in children

By 12 months, the child:

  • Babbles strings of sounds with changes in the loudness and emotional tone of their voice (e.g. dadadadadadadada)
  • Makes noises, points and looks at you to get your attention
  • Recognises some words, like ‘bye-bye’, ‘car’, ‘daddy’
  • Enjoys action songs and rhymes
  • Takes turns in conversations, babbling back to an adult
  • Produces simple gestures (e.g. shaking their head, waving bye-bye)

By 18 months the child:

  • Understands some simple instructions (e.g. ‘don’t touch’, ‘kick ball’, ‘give me’)
  • Points to familiar people and objects (e.g. ‘book’, ‘car’) when asked
  • Uses some simple words (e.g. ‘cup’, ‘daddy’, ‘dog’)
  • Gestures or points, often with words or sounds, to show what they want

By two years the child:

  • Puts short sentences together (e.g. ‘Daddy go’, ‘shoes on’)
  • Understands between 200-500 words and uses 50 or more single words
  • Understands more simple questions and instructions (e.g. ‘where is your shoe?’, ‘show me your nose’)

By three years the child:

  • Understands longer instructions (e.g. ‘make teddy jump’, ‘where’s mummy’s coat?’)
  • Understands simple ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘where’ questions, and asks lots of questions
  • Uses up to 300 words
  • Uses full sentences (e.g. ‘I don’t want that’, ‘my truck is broken’) including some simple grammar (e.g. ‘two dogs’, ‘doggie sleeping’)

By four years the child:

  • Understands and often uses colour, number and time-related words (e.g. ‘red’, ‘three’, ‘tomorrow’)
  • Asks and answers questions about ‘why’ something has happened
  • Uses longer sentences and links sentences together
  • Describes events that have already happened
  • Can tell a simple story

(adapted from ICAN’s Talking Point website and the Hanen Centre website)

(Adams, C. (2017) Speech and language development in children, Nursing in Practice, 28th August Retrieved from https://www.nursinginpractice.com/clinical/speech-and-language-development-in-children/)

Top tips to remember when thinking about speech and language development

  1. All children are different and will learn language at different rates
  2. Avoid comparing children’s language development with each other
  3. Tune in to the child’s signals and cues to engage in meaningful talk
  4. Use pictures, objects, gestures, signs, rhymes, songs and play to encourage communication
  5. Value all attempts at communication and remember to listen too!

Additional resources

About the author:

Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written three books – “Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children” , “School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning” and “Calling all Superheroes: Supporting and Developing Superhero Play in the Early Years” and is working on a fourth looking at “Developing a Loving Pedagogy in the Early Years”.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email tamsingrimmer@hotmail.co.uk

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