CHICAGO — Some parents are now finding their children are playing catch up since the pandemic and learning more about how COVID impacted kids.

Speech and language therapists say they’re now treating children with developmental deficits born from COVID mitigations. From understanding facial cues to reading comprehension, experts say addressing the problems early is critical.

At Little Steps in Highland Park weekly speech sessions are mixed with occupational and physical therapy are helping 6-year-old Maranella make strides.

Josephine Giannelli is Maranella’s mother.

“Pre-COVID we did have those issues, and Maranella has been in therapy since she’s been two and a half years old,” she said. “Since the pandemic we’ve noticed her a little more delayed.”

Paige Cianciolo is a speech-language pathologist at Little Steps.

“Maranella has been working on those essential language skills — so understanding other people’s facial expressions, understanding other people’s emotions,” she said. “We weren’t able to experience those normal interactions with kids and we weren’t able to problem solve. We were on screens or we were just isolated. So that just caused a big delay from our little ones all the way up to high school.”

In a large, on-going study of child neurodevelopment, researchers at Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital found children born during the pandemic have significantly reduced verbal, motor and overall cognitive performance compared to children born pre-pandemic.

“Every age is affected in their own way,” Cianciolo said.

In babies, it might be establishing eye contact, joint attention, play skills or speaking first words. For pre-school and school-aged children, articulation or speech sounds and expressive and receptive language skills may be impacted, including reading comprehension or the ability to express wants and needs. Older kids may experience deficits in social language skills.

“It’s our ability to have conversations, understand people’s facial expressions understand

other’s point of views,” Cianciolo said.

“You just can’t read what your friend is feeling,” Giannelli said. “You can’t read what your friend’s facial expressions are when you can’t see their mouth.”

While masks can hinder facial cues, speech therapist Cianciolo says isolation plays a critical role.

“We pick up so much from people’s facial expressions even our body language too, so I think the pandemic played a big role in that for her,” she said.

Now, the 6-year-old is learning to express herself before frustration sets in.

“When you see it prior to a pandemic and then you have a pandemic and see that regression you say we really need to help her though it,” Giannelli said.

Clinicians with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association say reasons for the lag in development are likely multifaceted and they encourage concerned parents to seek an evaluation from a local early intervention program or school.

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