As a speech and language therapist, I am lucky enough to have lots of conversations with children and young people who have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). My job is to listen to them, find out what’s working and of course, support the development of their speech, language and communication skills. These conversations usually happen in and amongst therapy sessions, discussions with teachers and parents… it’s ongoing.
Asking pupils what works for them whilst we are talking or teaching is a quick and easy way to ensure they understand. Then, if needed, additional strategies can be used to make access easier.
We are now approaching the time of year when conversations are turning to next steps, new classes, new teachers and sometimes even new schools. This can be a stressful time for pupils with SLCN for lots of reasons, but conversations can help.
It is important to gather the views of young people in relation to their education and in relation to wider issues. Part of school life is ensuring we have the pupil voice represented in our plans, through more formal discussions and interviews, as well as ongoing conversations.
However, it can be difficult to have these conversations with children and young people who have SLCN. Sometimes they tell us what they think we want to hear, or they pretend everything is fine, when actually they may be feeling worried or anxious. Sometimes they struggle to articulate what they are expecting or feeling, or they may be struggling to understand the process as a whole. Sometimes we might struggle to understand them due to speech or language difficulties.
Research has shown that these conversations are less common with children who have SLCN due to these challenges.
We all know children can be extremely insightful. They give us a perspective on things that otherwise we would struggle to understand. The conversations and discussions with these children can make a huge difference to them and their educational journey – and to us as parents, teachers and therapists.Listening and acting on children’s views can make a real difference. It is also important to explain why some of their suggestions are not possible. I once worked with a boy who said he didn’t like any lessons (“…they too hard…all the lessons”). His solution was to allow him to play all day! Clearly this wasn’t possible, though it was a great start to an ongoing conversation about how lessons could be more accessible and how play could be included in his day.
Over the past few years, information and resources have been developed that can help us to have better conversations with children with SLCN. I’ve shared links to the resources below, and here some top tips.
1. Take account of the obvious
Age, interests, levels of language (both understanding and talking), method of communication, first language, timing, how well you know the child, etc.
2. Go into conversations with an open mind
Children and young people can surprise you with what is and isn’t important to them.
3. Have a chat
Have a chat bearing in mind what you want to find out, avoid going through a list of questions.
4. Try not to judge any of the things children say
Respond in the same way to negative as well as positive comments.
5. Make it fun
Frame conversations around their interests or an activity you know they will enjoy.
There’s also lots of helpful information and resources on more practical tips for helping children with SLCN access the conversion:
● Always bear in mind their specific SLCN when considering your approach – every child is different.
● Use visual support; objects, pictures, photos, symbols etc. – it’s almost always helpful.
● For children with language difficulties it’s often (linguistically) easier to talk about what they have just been doing than what they did last week/at the weekend.
● Join in and talk about yourself, this can help take the pressure off them for a time.
● Use ‘phatics’ – “mmm”, “really”, “wow”, “yes”. This encourages children to carry on talking.
● Use open questions/statements – “tell me about…”, “What do you like about…”
● However, some children might need closed questions to tune them in and get them going in conversations - “what’s your favourite football team?”
● Try not to ask too many questions, often commentaries draw out more information - “Oh, so you like Youtube!” or opinions “you like pizza? I like curries more, they’re much nicer!”. This depends on the child – some love this debate, others really don’t!
● Concrete and definite information is often easier to access for children than information that is more abstract “Who lives in your house” can be easier than “Tell me about your family.”
● Narrower questions can be easier than broader “What food do you like for breakfast?” can be easier than “What food do you like?”
● If children seem to be giving what they think is the “right” answer, you could suggest the opposite answer as being just as valid E.g. Child: “I always listen to my teacher all the time.” Adult: “yes, though I find it can be hard to listen all the time.”
● Frame conversations around an activity - Drawing, playing, jigsaws – preferably something well within their ability so that it doesn’t demand too much from them.
If a child’s speech is very difficult to understand
● Try to keep the context known to both of you.
● Talk about a picture, event, film, situation you both know about, or talk around an activity you are doing there and then.
● This will help to narrow what it is the child might be talking about and therefore make it easier to work out.
Although conversations with children with SLCN are considered to be more challenging, we all know how important they are, for us as educators and for the children and their families. Hopefully our tips and the other resources available will support the work you’re doing with children who have communication needs. Though remembering that every child is different, we’d love for people to share in the comments their personal experiences; what has worked for children you know, and what does your child say is important?
Listening to Children and Young People with Speech, Language and Communication Needs, by Sue Roulstone and Sharynne McLeod.
This book covers theory and practice, with lots of examples, plus profits from sales go directly to Afasic - http://www.jr-press.co.uk/communication-needs.html
Some ideas for consultation with children and young people in the resource section - https://www.bercow10yearson.com/resources/
A summary and tips for consultation - https://www.bercow10yearson.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Find-out-what-helps-children-and-young-people-final.pdf
From early days at the Communication Trust – what young people say about the people who work with them, plus a top tips poster - https://www.thecommunicationtrust.org.uk/media/13556/childrens_consultation_final.pdf