Communication Matters – Supporting Pupils with Speech, Language and Communication Needs

Effective communication is a prerequisite of effective teaching and learning, but a broad range of speech, language and communication needs are stopping many pupils from achieving their potential at school.

Speech, language and communication underpin the majority of our daily activities and are essential skills for effective teaching and learning.

Having the ability to fully understand language, express needs and opinions through speech and use language in its appropriate context enables students to interact with their teachers and peers, learn new things, follow instructions, build relationships, understand and control their emotions and achieve their full potential at school.

Yet roughly one million children in the UK with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) lack these essential skills and as a result often fail to achieve positive outcomes at school.

It’s estimated that roughly ten per cent of all children have long term, persistent SLCN.

Roughly seven per cent of these have SLCN as their primary difficulty (known as Specific Language Impairment), two per cent have SLCN as a result of another condition such as autism, ADHD or hearing impairment, and just one per cent has severe and complex SLCN.

For teachers, this means that two to three students in every classroom have some form of SLCN and could be failing due to difficulties with communication.

SLCN is often hard to identify and children with mild Specific Language Impairment (SLI) are often misdiagnosed simply as ‘naughty’ as their inability to express themselves can result in violent and aggressive behaviour.

However, a large number of children with social, emotional and behavioural problems actually have SLCN that has gone undetected, and many could be helped with the proper understanding and support.

Thankfully, an increase in awareness has meant that the number of pupils identified as having SLCN has increased in recent years, alongside the available support.

Wendy Lee, Professional Director for The Communication Trust, a consortium of nearly fifty leading voluntary organisations specialising in speech, language and communication said: “Over the last five years, there has been a fifty eight per cent increase in the number of children and young people with SLCN as a special educational need.

“Changes in labelling, particularly around the diagnosis of behavioural, social and emotional problems, need to be managed carefully. Parents and the children’s workforce often notice and recognise poor literacy or poor behaviour but may not notice the SLCN difficulty underneath such as poor understanding, vocabulary or conversational skills.

“We need to work hard to ensure that the ‘hidden’ difficulties of children with SLCN are identified early across all phases of education.”

Early detection and appropriate support are essential as SLCN can have a negative impact on the lives of sufferers. It’s estimated that fifty to ninety per cent of children with persistent communication difficulties go on to have reading difficulties in later life, whilst ninety per cent of children with identified SLCN have some sort of long term difficulties.

Wendy Lee commented: “When SLCN is not addressed, problems can manifest over the years affecting the individual, their family and wider society. Figures show that more than half of children excluded from school have an unidentified SLCN and in our youth justice system, sixty per cent have SLCN which has previously been undetected.”

Once detected, there are a number of measures that schools can put in place to support pupils with all types of SLCN, such as adapting classrooms to include more visual support, creating explicit classroom routines, providing pupils with one-to-one support in the form of classroom assistants and speech and language therapists, linking speech and language therapy to the curriculum and using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) where appropriate.

Many children with SLCN have strong visual skills, and visual resources can be very effective in promoting pupils’ understanding and enhancing their learning environment.

Using pictures and symbols on timetables, worksheets, prompt cards and labels, for example, can help pupils with SLCN understand tasks and expectations, whilst visual displays can help reinforce learning.

Teaching practices that incorporate a range of visual and ‘hands-on’ approaches, including the use of practical work, video resources and outdoor activities also support learning, whilst well-explained and consistent classroom routines help pupils with SLCN, especially those with ADHD or autism, to thrive within a mainstream learning environment.

Joan Murphy, Co-Director of Talking Mats, a company that produces specialist visual communication tools explained: “Research has shown that visual tools are important for pupils with communication and language difficulties, along with clear structure and consistency.

“Pupils with language disorders often find language very confusing. Teachers say something and then it’s gone, and they’re unable to process what they’ve heard.  Concrete visual communication tools help them to fix language better, allowing them to move at their own pace and learn in their own way.

She added: “There are very specific skills for communicating with children with SLCN and it’s very difficult for teachers when there are a variety of abilities in a single class, especially in mainstream schools. Specialist resources are helpful as they allow pupils to learn in a manner that’s appropriate to them, setting their own targets and reviewing them over time.”

It’s important, wherever possible, to involve pupils in the process of target setting, enabling them to create their own individualised education programmes (IEP’s) with the help of a Special Educational Needs Coordinator, and a Speech and Language Therapists, as this allows them to take control over their own learning and understand which measures will be put in place to help them.

Speech and Language Therapists are ideally placed to help pupils assess their own needs, and it is common for them to work collaboratively with teachers and school leaders to bring about positive outcomes for pupils.

Specialist Speech and Language Therapist Dr. Hilary Gardner explained: “It’s very common for schools to contract their own Speech and Language Therapist.

“A Speech and Language Therapist might work individually with a child, or they might work with a teaching assistant or other member of staff to teach them about the difficulties that children have and make them more comfortable using various visual supports and techniques in the everyday curriculum.

“It’s a highly collaborative process, but schools are often very grateful for the extra ideas that we bring on communication and it can have a huge impact in terms of the confidence of the children with SLCN and the staff that teach them.”

Speech and Language Therapists help pupils to access the curriculum by integrating speech and language therapy activities into the curriculum and then using it to provide a relevant context to their learning.

But for pupils with severe SLCN, such measures are insufficient to enable them to achieve their potential at school.

For these pupils, many of whom have difficulty expressing themselves in a way that can be understood by others, different methods of communication are necessary, known as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).

AAC covers a variety of forms of communication, from signing and the use of gestures and symbols to the use of voice output communication aids and other computer-based technology.

AAC is used by people of all ages and with a range of conditions such as Cerebral Palsy, severe Autism or Motor Neurone Disease and can be used to support understanding and aid the development of communication.

In a school setting, access to appropriate AAC from an early age can enable some students to engage in learning in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

Identifying the right technique or correct aid to help a child with severe SLCN can be difficult and only be achieved through a collaborative effort on the part of parents, pupils, teachers, school leaders, speech and language therapists and AAC professionals.

Working with AAC systems and technology can be a long and difficult process, but it is important that the team remains in place to support the long term goals of the individual.

This way, they will be able to support the individual as they begin therapy and continue supporting them, with the appropriate training, as long as it is necessary.

As Communication Matters, the UK Chapter of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC) state:   “The individual, his family and local team must be included as equal members of the AAC team and the team must include AAC professionals with highly specialist skills, comprehensive up to date knowledge, representing a range of disciplines.

“Becoming an effective AAC user is a very long process, and the service must ensure that appropriate training is available to the individual and those supporting him or her to maximise competencies in all aspects; motor/ operational, social, linguistic, pragmatic.”

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