Monday, 17 July 2017

Secondary schools don't need speech and language therapists.... or do they?

I have a few common scenarios which show how speech, language and communication issues can be the predominant cause of behaviour problems. These scenarios are very common so could be about anyone of 6 or 7 clients currently known to me. This is the first one:

Teenage girl, second year of secondary school. No issues noted in primary apart from maybe a few 'fallings out' with other girls. No previous behaviour issues at home or at school. Perhaps she's even been a model student. 

Since starting secondary school, however  everything has started to fall apart: at home she's sulky, rude even abusive to parents, shuts herself away, won't go anywhere, friendships may have broken down, parents describe 'melt-downs' when she comes in. At school they didn't notice anything in particular and were quite surprised to hear of the behaviour at home in year 7 but this year, she is falling behind and they are constantly reporting her behaviour which is usually similar to this scenario with E aged 13 years:

Teacher presenting a  power-point which needs to be copied down
E. hasn't finished when teacher moves it on
E 'Excuse me sir can you just leave that a bit longer as I haven't finished?'
Teacher 'No E you'll have to stay at the end as everyone else has finished' E looks round and sees that 3 others haven't either
E 'No sir that's not true x, y and z haven't either'
Teacher 'E you're trying my patience, we've discussed your behaviour!'
E 'But Sir I'm not being naughty, I'm trying to do my work, I just need 2 more minutes please?'
Teacher 'That's it, you have a detention'
E 'For god's sake how stupid? I just want 2 minutes'
Teacher: That's 2 detentions young lady'
E 'I cant believe you're doing this I just want to do my work and you're treating me like this'

Sometimes it escalates further and sometimes EVEN further.

Sometimes the child is excluded.

The child may have 14 detentions in a 2 week period as in one case or 101 since xmas in another. 

Why should a child behave this way?

In the cases I have been dealing with:

1. slower processing skills
2. poor auditory memory
3. both of the above lead to difficulty understanding longer and more complex questions
4. literal understanding of language
5. lack of social skills/pragmatic ability means they don't modify their language for teachers so yell as they would to their parents
6. Rigid thinking means they cant 'let it go' because their sense of justice is so well developed they aren't wrong so the teacher must be
7. Can't see another's point of view 
7. An awareness of their difficulties but a desire to mask them means their anxiety levels are already heightened so it doesn't take much to 'set them off'

It has become a dreadful, seemingly untenable situation. School will have tried all their usual strategies for behaviour problems but nothing works. Yet the answers are simple strategies and an understanding of the problems. It amazing how we can make a HUGE difference by explaining to teachers why the child is doing what they're doing, if we now see them as struggling rather than defiant, abusive etc, we can avoid getting into many of the situations which have previously been a nightmare.

Some of these children may have undetected ASD but some will have language and communication difficulties which are not part of the spectrum. Hormones and personalities play their part too!


  • A one page profile needs to explain what the child finds difficult. Just the process of completing one of these may make the child feel respected and understood which is an important start.
  • Making sure all the child's staff have read and acknowledged the profile
  • Everything as visual as possible including  a print out of the power-point, gestures, notes. These can all be used to make aspects of the day clearer including the timetable, what a pupil will be learning in that lesson, expected behaviour, key vocabulary and information, the sequence of steps within an activity, names of equipment and where it is stored, etc.
  • Make sure the child is happy where they are sitting. I like them at the front so they can see the teacher and the teacher can see them but the child may well be uncomfortable at the front and want to be at the back. Sitting with a friend can be really helpful
  • Encourage an ethos where all pupils are encouraged to ask questions and seek clarification.
  • Have a code so they can let you know when thy haven't understood that no-one else will notice e.g. bag on desk, pencil case moved 
  • Agree how you can check they have understood
  • Expected behaviour is clearly described e.g. School ‘rules’ and ‘charters’, etc are written in simple, symbol or visual photos form so that pupils can understand them.
  • Quiet space is available for time-out or individual study.
  • A reflections log or journal where the child can write about what went well as well as what went wrong. Even better have  a mentor who can meet with the child regularly to discuss this
SLCN is just as big a problem in secondary school as in primary. In the secondary classroom, language is the foundation for participation in, and access to, most aspects of the school curriculum. Many aspects of written language, such as narrative or understanding what you're reading, can be limited by delayed language skills; 'by secondary age there is an increasing amount of figurative language in text books. The same is also true of ‘teacher talk’: 37% of teacher instructions in secondary schools contain multiple meanings, 20% with at least one idiom. As learning becomes more reliant on independent study, language enables pupils to make contact with others; to organise, manage and evaluate experiences; to influence and inform' (ICAN)

Last week I visited 6 secondary schools and was delighted with their positive responses. We all want whats best for the young person but we need to understand what this is to be able to do that. You may think that they don't need a speech and language therapy assessment as they speak fluently but if the usual strategies don't work, we can probably help fill in the missing links. Behaviour IS communication, we just have to work out what it's telling us.



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