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The 10 most common challenges faced by children with speech, language and communication needs

Children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) face a host of challenges in everyday life. Some are more difficult than others. Our Speech and Language Advisor Maxine Burns outlines the top 10 challenges they face and why they deserve your attention. 

If you have a basic grasp of a language other than your own native tongue, then you have the beginnings of an understanding of the challenges children and young people with speech, language or communication needs (SLCN) might face on a daily basis.

In a conversation using my school-girl French, I’m winging it. At my best, I use every ounce of my knowledge of the world and good non-verbal awareness to make sense of what is going on and hope that no-one will notice the finer details of what’s going wrong. At my worst, I’m lost in a fog of words. I can keep trying to navigate the fog, which is exhausting. Alternatively, I can opt out and let the conversation happen around me and hope that someone notices me struggling and helps me out.

Paying attention and listening

The first challenge for children with SLCN is often developing and sustaining attention and listening skills. When you don’t understand much of what’s being said, it’s tiring and many children will opt out. They may need ongoing support throughout their school career to remain focussed. Visuals will often help here as well as having listening breaks or clues for times to really pay attention.

Vocabulary

The second challenge is just knowing enough words. Children with SLCN very often have poor vocabulary. Following classroom instructions or understanding texts with complex subject vocabulary is difficult. It’s also harder for them to build their understanding over time and link new words in the curriculum in meaningful ways in their brain’s filing system. As a result, the holes in their knowledge can get bigger.

When it comes to using specific words to answer questions, the word they want can be lost in this ‘swiss cheese’ filing system and be difficult to retrieve quickly.

For example, they might substitute a word that’s not quite right context wise or use one that sounds a bit like the one they really need. It helps if teachers can invest time into teaching the foundation words of a topic well. Visuals such as a ‘word-wheel’ that categorises a word by both its meaning and its phonic structure can also help.

Processing information

Thirdly, their processing speed will usually be slower. This results in them playing catch up in listening to verbal information. They might also have memory difficulties that make it even harder for them to hold onto that information long enough to remember and understand it.

Analogy wise, if French speakers slow down a bit and break up what they say to me, I can process a bit at a time and make it easier for myself to follow and spot the specific words I don’t understand. Thinking time to formulate my answer is helpful too.

Grammar

Challenge five is understanding grammatical complexities. Just like in French, verb tenses, plural agreement, word order and a whole range of others can confuse children with SLCN. “Red class will be going swimming on Thursday” or “Red class went swimming last Thursday” seem easy to differentiate but the word order ‘who’, ‘what doing’ and ‘when’ is consistent in both. Even if you move the ‘what doing’ to the start, “on Thursday, red class will be going swimming” the sentence isn’t too complex.

However, understanding the very complex passive voice requires a child to do much more working out of who did what, when and by what means. For example, “Year 7 were entertained by a storyteller last week and as a result produced great work” is much harder to understand than “A story teller entertained Year 7 last week. After, they produced really great work”. Trying to make sure sentences are succinct and the word order of sentences reflect the sequence of events is very helpful for children with SLCN.

For older children, challenge six might be understanding and being able to use complex grammatical structures to write extended answers. If children can’t verbalise sentences using phrases like ‘in order to’, ‘if x, then y’ or ‘as a result of’, they won’t be able to write them down.

Asking for help

Challenge seven for children with SLCN is knowing when you don’t understand and need help. This is again linked to processing and working memory as you mentally check over what you’ve heard or read and ask yourself if it makes sense.

To avoid using the blanket ‘Je ne comprend pas!’ however, a child needs to hone in on what they don’t understand and receive clarification before they move on. Hopefully they will have staff on-hand to explain the instruction to them again and not assume they didn’t listen the first time.

Social situations

Social situations can be fraught and account for several challenges. Number eight revolves around many people talking at once, creating attention, listening and processing issues.

Number nine is being able to join in conversations and games at the pace at which they happen. Finding both a challenge can result in a child not engaging with peers and becoming increasingly isolated.

Perseverance

Bring all those together and perhaps challenge ten is turning up at school every day and trying again. Because the curriculum is primarily delivered through verbal and written language means, it’s hard work being a child or young person with SLCN. Many, particularly as they get older, risk becoming disengaged.

Teaching staff who can accurately identify when a child is struggling due to difficulties with speech, language or communication difficulties are necessary in every setting. Visit ican.org.uk for more information.

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