In this assignment I am going to consider the typical developmental pathways for a child to learn Speech, Language and Communication (SLC) skills, as well as providing an outline of the required SLC skills for achieving good educational outcomes. I will then consider what the consequences might be for students whose difficulties are not fully recognised or whose needs may not be fully met. Finally, this shall be put into context within my own practice, working with students with a range of Special Educational Needs (SEN) in a broad spectrum special school.
Typical developmental pathways for SLC skills
Scientists consider there to be three main models of language development. The Nativist theory was put forward by Noam Chomsky (SLTInfo.com, 2016), who argues that human beings are genetically pre-programmed to learn language. Due to the structure of human speech organs, the ability to produce certain sounds is unique to humans, as is the fine control over the diaphragm needed for speech. He believes that the speed at which children acquire language skills is another indicator for this theory, as is the concept that language is considered unique to humans.
Professor Narasimhan (Chandrasekar, 2008) proposed the Behaviourist theory, where he argues that children acquire ‘Language behaviour’ which is explained as learning how to use language to manipulate or explore the world around them, and that they learn this from being exposed to a variety of language utterances and non-verbal inputs such as gestures and pointing.
He also believes that children need inputs from a language community around them to learn language, and that language behaviour is example driven; for example, that imitation, rehearsal and analogising all play critical roles in language acquisition.
The Interactionist theory was suggested by Chapman (Chapman, 2000) who argues that studies of parent-child interactions reveal the importance of frequent, positive verbal interactions in supporting rapid language acquisition.
For with children with a wide range of learning disabilities, it should be suggested that language acquisition occurs as a combination of all three of these theories – without the biological ability to be able to form speech, as well as being able to hear others communicating and interacting with them, children will never develop language. It logically follows that the better the quality of these interactions, the better the chances are for the child to learn to communicate. A child with severe cerebral palsy, for example, does not have the control over their diaphragm and muscles which are needed to produce clear, or any, speech sounds. These children may learn to communicate by gesture or by means of a computer based device, but this takes a lot of time and effort, requiring an innate ability within the child which may not always be present. Equally, due to the severity of their disabilities, it may be that a child will never understand what is said other than responding to known voices, regardless of the level of interaction that parents have with the child.
SLC skills needed for achieving good educational outcomes
A typically developing child will acquire arrange of skills over the first years of their lives which lead to language development, including understanding and responding to body language and facial expression, understanding social communication skills such as turn taking, and developing the use of expressive and receptive language.
The pattern of learning can be seen through summary documents such as ‘Universally Speaking’ from the Communication Trust (The Communication Trust, 2016). Those that don’t acquire such skills, including children with learning disabilities, will struggle to attain good educational outcomes without the appropriate diagnosis and support at as young an age as possible.
As a result of home circumstances or a disability, up to 10% of children will not develop their communication skills at the same rate as their peers. Up to 7% of these children may have a Specific Language Impairment (SLI), which means that although they have developed typically in other areas, they have difficulty talking and understanding language (iCan, 2016).
As a result of having an SLI, children who have an innate ability will feel frustration that they cannot understand long instructions or make themselves understood, and this often leads to behaviour issues. These behaviour issues then become the primary area of concern for the children, meaning that the SLI is often not diagnosed.
SLI is a very broad category, ranging from mild problems that are short-lived when given the right support to overcome these, to severe and persistent difficulties with both understanding and talking, although these children can be as intelligent as their classmates. Diagnosed SLI is more common in boys than in girls, with children born in the summer more likely to be diagnosed with the condition.
To function effectively in a classroom environment children need to be able to effectively use a range of speech, language and communication methods. This is the most important skill, and needs support and teaching from parents and care givers in the early years of a child’s life. If children have no language skills they cannot learn and so they struggle to function. The building blocks of communication are having the opportunity to initiate interaction and having motivation to communicate; having opportunities to develop eye contact, turn taking, shared attention and listening skills, as well as developing an understanding of body language and tone of voice; developing an understanding of spoken language and being able to use accurate speech sounds when communicating. (Hounslow NHS, 2016)
More severe SLCN difficulties include having very little spoken language, significant difficulties understanding spoken language and being unable to indicate basic needs. The majority of children with a learning disability also have SLCN. This can be caused by poor muscle development or coordination for speech and swallowing, social interaction difficulties such as autism, a profound hearing impairment or an acquired brain injury, as well as being part of a genetic condition such as Down Syndrome. (iCan, 2016)
A significant number of children with learning disabilities have a parent who also has a learning disability. This automatically puts these children at a disadvantage when developing SLCN skills, as their parent may not have these skills themselves, or have the understanding of how to communicate with their child during the early years when the child cannot talk back.
Consider the following student – a late summer born child who comes across as bright and interested in the world, showing that they enjoy engaging with people. Their speech sounds were poorly formed – ‘ch’ and ‘y’ in particular – and their conversational topics were quite limited. On getting to know the family it was obvious that both parents had a moderate learning disability, and due to the child’s slow development input was given to the family when their siblings were born, resulting in them developing along a more typical pathway. With the correct intervention for this child at a younger age their life chances may have been different.
Consequences of unmet needs or unidentified difficulties
It is quite clear that without the range of skills identified above, the typical child would struggle in a classroom environment, where the whole day is based on interactions with both adults and other children. Social interaction amongst children provides many valuable learning opportunities, and it plays a key role in social development and learning. (Howe & Mercer, 2007). Amongst students with a moderate learning disability and a SLCN, it is common that poor vocabulary can lead to problem behaviour as a child struggles to make their needs known clearly (Hartas, 2011). Language and behaviour difficulties co-occur in about 50-70% of young children and that this persists with age, with boys tending to become more disruptive than girls. A SLCN can affect the academic achievement, self-esteem, social acceptance, behaviour and emotional development in children (iCan, 2016). There is also a known link between SLCN and literacy problems. Children who are unable to understand complex oral language and word meanings will be poor at reading and without comprehension skills they will find it difficult to make inferences.
A lack of identification or support can lead to anger, frustration and challenging behaviour, which in turn can lead to social exclusion and criminal activity (iCan, 2016). Studies have shown that up to 20% of the prison population have a learning disability, and therefore are likely to have a SLCN (Rack, 2005). For these children, it is important that all of the services involved work together, and that all staff in schools are well trained to deal with them. Where there is an identified need for communication aids to support children with a severe SLCN, such as Makaton, symbols, PECS (picture exchange systems) or talk boxes these need to be used consistently by all involved with the child.
As part of the research for this paper, a typical lesson plan was analysed. A range of potential issues for a child with SLCN were identified, which included difficulties communicating what they know to friends and adults, difficulties with use and understanding of key vocabulary and trouble understanding verbal instructions.
All of these may lead to challenging behaviour as a child seeks to find ways to return to their comfort zone, which will have a detrimental effect on both the child and his classmates. Alternately, a child with SLCN may sit quietly, feeling unable to ask for help as they are overwhelmed by the input they are receiving.
Special school classes tend to be much smaller than mainstream ones, and with a higher ratio of adults to students. This is to enable each student to work at their own pace, with an appropriate level of input from the adults.
Planning to meet the needs of these students is thus, in theory, easier, as there should be more awareness of the SLCN of these children. It is important, though, to ensure that the adults who work with these children have the appropriate training and do not do the work for the students, and that at some level the students have understood what is expected of them and that they are continually challenged to improve their speech and communication skills. By keeping work at an appropriate level of challenge students feel more confident to tackle it and challenging behaviour can be lessened. Regular intervention and simple explanation can help reduce the effect of an SLCN for a child with a learning disability.
SLCN in a special school
Within any educational setting, the role of speech, language and communication is key if children are to develop and make the progress that they are capable of, emotionally, educationally and socially. Working in a special school the focus is even more placed towards the social aspects of communication as for many children the complex requirements of the National Curriculum are not always appropriate.
Considering a typical broad spectrum special school, the students have a diagnosis of Moderate, Severe or Profound Learning disabilities. They all have an SLCN of some description and all have an Education, Health and Care plan (EHC). Of the 130 students on roll, just 18% of them have a diagnosis relating to SLCN identified on their EHC plans yet 50% of them are on the caseload of the Speech and Language therapist (SaLT). Referral to SaLT through school is a simple process, they will see anyone for an assessment if there are concerns, which explains why there are more students on their caseload than have a diagnosis, and it appears that the majority of students have been known to the service when they were younger. This means that the SaLT has an enormous caseload and may not be able to work with students on even a weekly or fortnightly basis. Often they give a series of exercises to both parents and teachers to complete in class on a more regular basis which relies on there being enough trained adults in the class to support this learning process, as well as time being able to be put aside each day to do this.
There is a need to for SLCN to be made explicit on the paperwork – after all, a diagnosis of Down Syndrome or ASD would imply a likely SLCN, but to receive the support necessary throughout their school years a student needs this to be implicitly stated. Conversations with the SaLT suggest that their aim is to get students to a point where they are able to express themselves clearly enough to make their needs knows, as the students have to be prioritised. This means those who are able to express themselves but struggle to understand or hold a longer conversation slip through the net, and teachers do not always have enough training to be able to identify and in turn support these students to reach their full potential.
As a school, Widgit (Widgit, 2016) symbols and Makaton signing are used to support communication for verbal students, with PECS and talk boxes being used with non verbal students, and it appears that the most volatile students are those who really struggle to make their thoughts and feelings known in an appropriate manner. Of these students the majority are boys, with many of those diagnosed with MLD having arrived from failed mainstream placements. It is therefore important to investigate and work to resolve the underlying reasons for these behaviours, which include not being able to express themselves clearly and a limited range of conversation, a clear indicator of undiagnosed (or forgotten) SLCN.
Although many children with an SLI or an SLCN due to environmental factors such as poverty or poor early experiences can be helped to overcome this in the early years of their schooling, those with learning disabilities leading to a more severe SLCN are unlikely to be able to function at the same level as their mainstream peers. Their learning disability is a long term prognosis which impacts on their life chances, and although any input may help to develop their speech, language and communication skills it will never cure them of their difficulties. These poor language skills will persist for life in line with their cognitive development and it is important that schools work to develop the social skills and functional language for these students – they need to be able to make their needs known in an appropriate way while functioning within society. As a result, the impact on the life chances of these children is significant, with many of them needing daily support for the rest of their lives, while some may be able to hold down a full time job with the appropriate support.
It is essential that all staff who work with students with life long learning disabilities are aware of the impact that SLCN will have on their lives, and how they can best support these children while they are in school. This means training all staff to communicate in the best way for all of their students, and ensuring staff are helping students develop skills and confidence in communicating all of the time.
In order to provide the best possible future for these students, is it also important to engage families to develop the communication skills that are needed to make progress in life once leaving school and in order to try and break the cycle of disruptive behaviours that seem to occur particularly in boys with moderate learning disabilities and SLCN which are not appropriate in society.
Chandrasekar, R. (2008). How Children Learn to Use Language: An Overview of R Narasimhan’s Ideas on Child Language Acquisition. Resonance: Journal Of Science Education, 430-439.
Chapman, R. (2000). Children’s Language Learning: An Interactionist Perspective. Journal Of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 33.
DfE. (2010). Investigating the role of language in children’s early educational outcomes. London: DfE.
Hartas, D. (2011). Children’s language and behavioural, social and emotional difficulties and prosocial behaviour during the toddler years and at school entry. British Journal Of Special Education, 83-91.
Howe, C., & Mercer, N. (2007). Children’s social development, peer interaction and classroom learning.
iCan. (2016, July 25). iCan. Retrieved from iCan talk – 1 SLCN and literacy difficulties: http://www.ican.org.uk/What_is_the_issue/I%20CAN%20Evidence.aspx
iCan. (2016, July 25). iCan – About SLI. Retrieved from iCan: http://www.ican.org.uk/da/What_is_the_issue/About%20SLI.aspx
iCan. (2016, July 25). iCan Talk series – 9 Children with severe SLCN. Retrieved from iCan: http://www.ican.org.uk/What_is_the_issue/I%20CAN%20Evidence.aspx
Rack, J. (2005). The incidence of hidden disbailities in the prison population. The Dyslexia Institue.
SLTInfo.com. (2016, July 25). Retrieved from sltinfo.com/innate-ability-for-language-acquisition: http://www.sltinfo.com/innate-ability-for-language-acquisition
The Communication Trust. (2016, July 25). Univerally Speaking. Retrieved from The Communication Trust: https://www.thecommunicationtrust.org.uk/resources/resources/resources-for-practitioners/universally-speaking.aspx
Widgit. (2016, July 25). Widgit. Retrieved from Widgit: https://www.widgit.com/