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Supporting communication in children with behavioural difficulties

Supporting communication in children with behavioural difficulties

Can I be totally honest with you? The following advertisement released earlier this year for a school “detention director” mortified me.

According to the school’s website the following behaviours are prohibited and as such, punished:
turning around in class, calling out or being late, failing to listen attentively, behaving badly outside of school, failing to bring correct equipment and failing to complete homework”.

Now for those of you who read my previous blog I’m hoping you recognise some of these ‘prohibited behaviours’ in nine-year-old Connor. And I’m also hoping that after reading that blog you now know not to take these kind of behaviours at face value. Frankly I believe that actions deemed ‘behavioural’ occur as a direct result of something else, and as such it is our responsibility to figure out what that is and how we can support struggling pupils. Do we want to punish or rehabilitate?

More often than not children who have behavioural difficulties have communication problems, impacting their understanding of language, spoken language and social skills. In Wetherby Young Offenders Institute research found that around 60% of inmates had speech, language and communication needs. Surely it cannot be a coincidence that these young people who have developed extreme behavioural problems, also suffered from communication difficulties?

At least 40% of children with Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) may have undiagnosed communication problems.

Check this out. In December last year the Government released the most recent statistics detailing the number of school exclusions in the UK. The following facts stood out:

  • Pupils with identified special educational needs (SEN) accounted for just over half of all permanent exclusions and fixed-period exclusions.
  • Pupils with SEN support had the highest permanent exclusion rate and were more than seven times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion than pupils without SEN.
  • Pupils with an education, health and care (EHC) plan or with a statement of SEN had the highest fixed-period exclusion rate and were almost seven times more likely to receive a fixed-period exclusion than pupils without SEN.

To me these figures are shocking and devastating.
It therefore came as no surprise to me to read the following statement from the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons report for 2014-2015:

“Eighty five per cent of boys in this report explained that they had been excluded from school before they came into detention”

85%! It saddens me to think of how many of these children and young people had behavioural problems stemming from undiagnosed speech and language needs. How many were excluded for having SEN needs which were not properly managed and/or understood? It leads me to believe that as a society we are failing these children. We may not be able to solve the nationwide problem, but if we can recognise the true needs of a few pupils hopefully we can initiate the ripple effect.

So how can we help?

First thing’s first, any child in your school who presents with behavioural problems should be referred for a Speech and Language assessment. An Occupational Therapy (OT) referral may not be a bad idea either. OTs support those pupils who constantly fidget and can’t sit still; usually due to their sensory needs being too high or too low.

Now, let’s revisit Connor. We’ve already learnt about his behavioural difficulties and how they may be masking undiagnosed communication problems. What I want to do now is give you some ideas and strategies on how we can support his language difficulties and help him re-access the curriculum.


Attention & listening

  • Never assume a child such as Connor understands what good listening skills are! Role play good and bad examples or watch youtube clips to help him recognise the desired skills.

  • Practise repair strategies or how to ask for clarification. A “help card” can be a useful tool for a pupil to gain a Teacher’s attention without it being as obvious as a ‘hand-up’. This can be designed by the child so they have real ownership of it. Don’t forget the specific praise when they use this independently!
  • Ensure the child is aware of their learning objectives. The best way to do this is to ask the child to tell you what they need to do. When asked “do you understand?” a child will more often than not say “Yes”. Even though they don’t; so try not to use this kind of question.

Understanding Language

  • Make sure you use an appropriate level of language when speaking to a child like Connor. I don’t mean trying to be ‘street’ or ‘cool’ with your vocabulary, but rather, consider the length of your instructions. Use short, simple sentences. Break down large amounts of information and repeat key points.

  • Provide 1:1 opportunities to revise and reinforce information.

  • Use a multi-sensory approach e.g pictures, objects and real life experiences. Many children who have understanding difficulties have fantastic visual skills.

  • Pupils such as Connor may have difficulty answering ‘why’ questions. This type of question requires the child to solve and justify complex problems which can place a high level of pressure onto them. Instead, ask the child to tell you ‘what happened’ and use pictures/facial expressions/rating scales to help support their explanations.

Use of Language

  • Word maps/mind maps are a great visual way to support vocabulary development.

  • Make sure you give pupils enough time to process a question and plan their response. How long is too long is up to you – you’ll know when it becomes uncomfortable.

  • Provide a good model of language! If a child provides a one word answer, or a disjointed explanation, repeat back what they have said using appropriate vocabulary, word order and additional information.

  • Many children with behavioural problems use swear words because they are limited with their descriptive vocabulary. Building adjectives and emotive vocabulary knowledge can help with this.

Social Communication

  • Eye contact can be tricky for a child who has SEN. Helping a child like Connor be aware of the power of eye contact and the implications of poor eye contact is essential. Playing games such as “wink murder” are great activities to practise eye contact.

  • Many pupils who have SEN find non-literal language difficult to understand. If you find yourself using idioms or slang, explain what they mean and build a list of everyday phrases that the pupil can keep with them.

The strategies above are only the tip of the iceberg for these pupils. Many of them require specialist input from the right professional, be it a Speech and Language Therapist, Occupational Therapist or Mental Health worker.