Bob Reitemeier reflects on language as a fundamental life skill

31 March 2021

Bob Reitemeier highlights the importance of working in partnership to improve children’s language development

After 40 years working in the charity sector, I will be retiring at the end of March and wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you.

I suspect we have all reflected on life and on work more than usual this past year – with all the challenges and changes to routines we have faced. As optimistic as we all want to be currently with the roll-out of the vaccines moving at pace and the number of new cases of COVID-19 decreasing, we are still reminded of the over 125,000 people who have tragically died from the virus in the UK.

In our reflections, I wonder how many of us have had a similar thought – that it is moments like this that truly bring out the importance of children’s language development. Of course, those in the speech, language and communications sector already knew how important language is to children’s development, but sadly it remains the case that many people in the UK do not understand its importance.

At I CAN we are fond of saying that language is the most fundamental life skill. Almost everything is built on language development: educational attainment, making friends and social interaction, learning to read, and building resilience are just a few examples. During the pandemic, people’s mental health has quite rightly been highlighted as a major area of concern for the nation. Mental health was a critical issue before COVID-19 arrived, but the stress and anxiety experienced by so many people because of the lockdown periods, school closures, working from home and social distancing has led us to better understand how important it is to provide support to people suffering poor mental health.

Like mental health, children’s language development was already one of the most important, but unfortunately least well understood, social issues facing our nation before the pandemic. Primary school Head Teachers were already calling children’s poor language development as the main issue that kept them awake at night. But, now following months of school closures, more and more people are pointing to children’s language regression and the Word Gap that results between affluent and poor households as the key issue that needs to be addressed as we move out of the pandemic.

Children who were already struggling in nursery and in school before the first lockdown are now several further steps behind their peers. With one million children (7.6% of all children in the UK) experiencing developmental language disorder, this is not something that can be disregarded – it is far too critical for the nation’s future.

As we continue to reflect on the impact of the pandemic on our lives, we need to work more closely together on what we can do to raise the profile of children’s language development as a fundamental building block in creating a better society beyond the pandemic. Children’s language development should be as well known, well understood, and well supported as children’s mental health. We also need to highlight the clear impact language has on mental health: 81% of children with emotional and behavioural disorders have significant language deficits, often unidentified.

The key words in this sentiment are ‘work more closely together.’  No one organisation is going to raise the profile of children’s language development on their own. If we are serious about helping the nation understand how important language is to children’s lives, then we have no choice but to join together to spread the message.

Which brings me to my thank you. Over the past five years I have learned a great deal from my colleagues at I CAN, but very importantly, I have learned and gained so much as well from our partnerships across the sector. We have tried to be a better partnership organisation during this time, and I have no doubt that we have improved as an organisation because of our joint working. I know that I have grown as a person because of our partnerships and as I step down, I wanted to say ‘thank you’ for all that you do.

Bob Reitemeier, Chief Executive of I CAN


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