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Life, Luck and Language

During the Christmas period, I happened to be travelling on public transport. I observed a boy of about 4 years old who persevered in engaging with an adult in conversation where the adult clearly did not want to converse. Watching this was reassuring in many ways, yet it turned my thoughts to the role of nature and nurture in communication development. The big question in my head was and still is: what made him keep trying?

Risk and resilience

There are a range of factors that can influence how communication skills develop in the early years. Some factors can pose risks whilst others influence resilience. The two are not mutually exclusive.

If we look at risk and resilience in terms of nature and nurture, then we can widen our perspective of the interaction between a range of factors. Let’s look at these in turn.

Risk factors arising from nature include:

  • Family history of speech, language and communication needs (SLCN)
  • Sensory impairment (hearing or vision)
  • Other medical conditions e.g. Cerebral Palsy
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Genetic conditions eg. Down’s Syndrome.

Risk factors arising from nurture include:

  • Low socio-economic background (Locke, Ginsborg & Peers; 2002)
  • Disordered attachment (Barlow et al; 2016)
  • Physical/mental illness in carer
  • Carer’s communicative behaviours (e.g. reduced responsiveness)
  • Carer practices (eg. wallpaper TV).

Risk factors arising from nature such as intermittent hearing loss and subsequent communication needs have been identified as causal links (see Shriberg, Friel-Patti, Flipsen & Brown; 2000).

Then again, babies and young children who smile and initiate less, cry a lot or are regarded as unsettled (perhaps due to illness or distress) will be at further risk of fewer and less rewarding ‘conversations’ with their carer/s. This in turn can negatively influence a baby’s communicative behaviour by diminishing their responsiveness.

There is increasing controversy surrounding risk factors that affect nurture. It is important here to state that children from all social groups are equally as likely to be affected by Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) or other language disorders associated with other conditions e.g. autism (I CAN Early Talk: Working with Under Threes; 2018).

However, delayed language has been statistically linked to a range of socio-economic factors, including social disadvantage. One particularly stark report identified the percentage of children negatively affected at 84% (

Other risk factors, such as carer’s communicative behaviours and carer practices are often regarded as causal factors. Yet such behaviours may vary from family to family and are likely to be influenced by a variety of circumstances such as: family make up, environmental influences and social conventions.

Making the most of what you’ve got

What I want to focus on is that risk factors can and do have an impact on communication development. However, it is worth noting that:

  • None of these factors discussed above can determine outcomes for any child
  • Any communication needs will arise out of the complex interaction of a range of factors
  • Some factors are intrinsic in a child and may pose either a risk or support development of resilience
  • Other risk factors may be environmental
  • Some factors support a child to redress other risk factors (adult carers who engage in frequent play activity with their child).

What can I do to help every child reach their full potential?

  • Each child should be considered individually
  • Observing, monitoring and planning are key steps to ensuring any needs are identified; these approaches also enable development through a range of support and activities
  • Always try to work in partnership with parents and carers to maintain a holistic approach;
  • Collaborate with other professionals outside of your setting to ensure there is joined up planning and coordination of agreed upon approaches
  • Have warmth and responsiveness as key elements in all your interactions with children; these are crucial approaches in helping with attachment and development of communication skills.


Children bring aspects of nature that can support their communication development or in some cases, make it more challenging. As adults, we have a role in providing support, routines, activities and interaction opportunities for all children.

Jon Gilmartin is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Speech and Language Advisor for I CAN, he delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. He also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. You can contact Jon directly on I CAN’s Enquiry Service by calling 0207 843 2544 or sending an email to 

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