SoundSpace Online

Social, Emotional and Cognitive Development

Deafness from birth can impact a child’s social and emotional wellbeing and cognitive development. To a great extent, these challenges are tied to the challenges that deaf children have in developing language.

How does language impact social and emotional development?

People are social and emotional beings, and as children develop, they learn more about the people around them. They begin to understand that others do not think in the same way that they do. They become aware that people can differ in what they believe, know, and want – not everyone sees every situation in the same way:

Harry saw the snow coming down from the classroom window. ‘yipee’ he thought, ‘we can go home and build snow men. I love snow’.

Later he learnt not everyone loved the snow. His dad was cross, he had missed an important meeting to collect him from school and his gran was really worried she would fall over.

In some sense this can be seen as “reading another’s mind” – to have an idea of what another person is thinking about. In the literature this is called "Theory of Mind” (ToM). For more information, please visit this American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) website page, and for a video, please visit this Phonak - British Sociaty of Audiology (BSA) website page.

For all children, research has shown that language plays a critical role in developing a child’s theory of mind. Because deaf children often have delays in language development, they may also be slower to develop theory of mind. Please visit this Hands & Voices website page for more information on social cognition and ToM. 

Experiences build brain architecture and all skills are interconnected.

Watch in this clip how the mum uses language to guide her child’s problem solving. So next time, the child will have the language tools to solve it himself.

Here Armaan, is making fruit kebabs with his Mum. He’s making a plan with words and problem solving. Later, he’ll reflect by talking about likes and dislikes, what was easy and what was hard.

How does language impact cognitive development?

When children first develop language they use it to communicate and interact with others, see also SoundSpace Online - Communication and language development. But this language also becomes the foundation for thinking and cognitive development. Experiences build brain architecture and all skills are interconnected.

Cognition includes mental activities such knowing, understanding, reasoning, planning, remembering and memorizing. One way to think about this is that the language that was first used to communicate with others turns inward and becomes for a tool for thinking – for making sense of the world “in your head”. For example, if you want to remember the rules for playing a game, you review what you have been told to yourself in an inner voice, in the language in which you heard it. As you review the rules in your own mind, you can identify what you might not have understood and then ask for more information. These “in the mind” processes depend to a great extent on language. Without a language in place, or if this language base is weak, there is not an adequate language to “think with.” This has been the situation for many deaf children who may not have age-appropriate spoken or signed language development. These language delays or weaknesses have negative impacts on cognitive development with implications for learning and education.

How do we support the development of language and thinking?

Children acquire language from people around them, motivated to express their own desires and thoughts.

Amy is two, she wants a banana. Amy looks at the banana, so her mum peels it and gives it to her. “Here you go a banana” says Mum.

Amy’s mum is caring and receptive to her child’s needs. Often guided by love, parents read their child’s thoughts and act as if they have spoken. What if Amy’s mum had waited or given her the banana without peeling it? So she had a problem to solve, a reason to use words or signs.

Top tips

  1. Give words to thoughts and feelings – your own and the child’s. If you hear words like ‘want’ ‘like’ ‘know’ ‘think’ ‘feel’ ‘why’, you’ll know you’re developing language and thinking.
  2. Give the child lots of problems to solve and start young!
    • Yoghurt but no spoon
    • A favourite toy out of reach
    • An un-peeled banana
  3. Provide lots of activities that require planning, problem solving and reflecting.

So for social emotional and cognitive development: build independence, provide language to solve problems and talk about thoughts and feelings.