This year, our annual Talk To Your Baby conference focused on wellbeing. One of the greatest literacy challenges of lockdown has been supporting disadvantaged children under the age of two and their families and the deeper emotional and cognitive impact of lockdown is emerging.
We are so pleased that over 270 delegates attended our virtual conference and heard insights from our panel of experts from practice, policy and academia, who explored challenges children aged 0-2 and their families have faced as a result of the pandemic, how they can be better supported, the importance of a representative workforce and pedagogy and the importance of relationships.
Sally Hogg, Head of Policy and Campaigning at the Parent-Infant Foundation opened our conference by discussing the importance of the first 1001 days of a child’s life with Judith Parke, our Head of Home Learning Environment.
Sally outlined the clear, compelling evidence that “the root of everything – all learning, language development and social competence – comes back to the interactions that happen in the first 1001 days of life”.
She also pointed out that, when there are difficulties in their parents’ lives as a result of “mental health problems, their own models of relationships or trauma” communication with children can be impacted. In this instance, families need “special parent-infant support which sits more within the mental health system, which can enable those relationships to happen.” Therefore, there is hope for such families if the right help is available.
During Judith’s conversation with Jamel Carly, early years educator, consultant and children's author and Debbie Brace early language consultant who has worked extensively with families from Hounslow, they further explored the challenges of lockdown for children, parents and practitioners.
Debbie pointed to a need for a “Mind-minded” approach to the infant-adult relationship during lockdown which is characterized by genuine attention to what a child is feeling, saying that “if everyone is paying attention to each other’s emotions, then the work can happen.”
Jamel said “early years practitioners are the most underrated in education and yet we’ve been open throughout lockdown.” He also explained how important contact is in early years practice, and that communication has been impacted by the pandemic due to the compulsory safety measures.
Next we heard from Dr Angus Macbeth, Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of Edinburgh and expert in perinatal mental health, and Keith Clements, Senior Researcher at the National Children’s Bureau.
Dr Macbeth explored the links between maternal mental health and child outcomes. He compared maternal mental health problems to a filter which can act as a barrier to healthy communication between a mother and baby and that there is a vital need for perinatal mental health interventions to be on the national agenda to mitigate the effect of these social factors on child outcomes.
Keith Clements discussed his literature review Nurturing Healthy Minds Together and his organisation’s recommendations to policy makers and service providers for how to support the mental wellbeing of children aged 0-5 and their families.
His research suggested that “the most effective early years interventions are grounded in supporting the parent-infant relationship” and “there should always be a support package in place to support the most vulnerable” and so, like Angus, provided a clear indication that prevention is better than cure and that should inform how services are equipped.
Dr Nayeli Gonzalez-Gomez, member and Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Brookes Baby Lab presented the organisation’s study of 8-36 month olds under lockdown. The research showed that “access to books and access to outdoor space are key factors in how children in early years spent time during lockdown.”
Research indicated “the importance of high-quality early childhood education for the development of key skills and levelling socioeconomic inequalities” and that ultimately “parental engagement with infants is constrained by opportunities, not by attitude.”
The wellbeing of young children and families has come into sharp focus in recent months, following global conversations around race, inequality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Laura Henry-Allain is an award-winning early education expert, consultant, author and speaker and the creator of JoJo and Gran Gran characters, featured in the CBeebies series of the same name. In her finishing keynote, she provided a rousing and vital case for inclusive public spaces which nurture all children’s creativity and literacy skills.
Laura is from a working class St Lucian family and was brought up in West London and drew on her own experiences growing up with dyslexia and how the library was her haven but even since childhood she’s noticed a shortage of books in libraries and schools which celebrate the diversity of the UK populace, and has campaigned to inform and change this.
She said of children from ethnic minority backgrounds that “sometimes children struggle to write because they’re not exposed to material that makes sense to them…they don’t have that lightbulb moment.” She encouraged schools and service providers to carry out “an audit of children’s books in your school. All children should see themselves in books.” She also spoke of celebrating diversity and encouraging inclusivity and said “don’t just be un-racist. Be anti-racist.”
What was clear from all our speakers this year is that communication between children and parents from conception to the age of two is vital for emotional wellbeing and language development.
Supporting a home environment which encourages communication-rich relationships in which the effects of social inequality can be mitigated against is the responsibility of service providers and policy makers and there needs to be clear links between these factions to support those who are vulnerable.
We’d like to thank this year’s speakers who entertained, informed and provided practical, clear strategies and guidelines to improve and inform future practice.