Teachers can help parents with their child’s communication

difficulties Comment by SHERMEENA RABBI, Founder of Unlocking Language

Spotting problems early There are many milestones in a child’s language development, from babbling in the first few months to following simple commands. By the time a child reaches reception, they should have a vocabulary of around 2,000 words and be able to speak in complete sentences and tell simple stories. It’s tempting to believe that these problems will self-correct; after

all, children do develop at different rates. But the longer you leave these problems, the more arduous will be the process of treating any speech and language disorders, while the child will also suffer from falling further behind at school – something that can have ramifications that ripple throughout their life. It’s vital that teachers do not apportion blame to parents who can

become defensive if they perceive the school’s concerns as an indictment on their childrearing skills, or on their son’s or daughter’s intelligence. One way to approach this sensitive subject is to frame the conversation around the child’s hearing. This may well be a reason for slow speech and language development although, in truth, such problems will more than likely have been identified before the child reaches school. It is, however, a good icebreaker, especially when it’s done in

tandem with the school’s SEN co-ordinator or dedicated speech therapist, if you have one. What’s vital is that teachers remember that a suspicion or diagnosis of SLCN can be a bombshell for parents; moreover, it can take anything up to six months for a referral to a speech and language specialist. They should therefore soften the blow and reassure parents by

telling them that communication problems are eminently treatable and setting out a plan for how the school and parents can work together to help the child during the wait to see a specialist.

As the old proverb puts it, it takes a village to raise a child. While parents will do anything in their power to give their child the best possible start in life, they can’t get everything right. When the baton of responsibility passes from parent to schools, teachers take on the awesome responsibility of identifying children’s developmental challenges – including those that the parents have missed. One of the most serious and most common developmental

disorders are those surrounding speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) which account for almost a quarter of SEND pupils. When parents fail to spot these problems or take a laissez-faire, “wait- and-see” attitude, it magnifies the importance of teacher intervention. Identifying SLCN early is one of the keys to successful outcome in

speech and language therapy. While adults and older children can of course be treated successfully, the task is made so much easier by identifying potential speech problems during the “Golden Period”, typically between three and five years old. This is where primary teachers have such an important role to play: not just by identifying speech problems, but by communicating them effectively to parents so that everyone can play their part in the solution.

Speech matters Speech problems are more common than you might think. Seven per cent of all children have some form of speech and language impairment; indeed, it’s the most prevalent childhood disability. The consequences of missed diagnoses can be severe. Between 50

and 90 per cent of children with persistent speech, language and communication difficulties go on to have reading difficulties. Speech impairment is present in two thirds of seven- to 14-year olds with serious behaviour problems, while the same goes for those in Young Offender Institutions. Meanwhile, people with a history of early language impairment are at higher risk of mental health problems. Yet while seven per cent might suffer from SLCN, only three per

cent of the school population is ever identified as having problems with their speech. When trained professionals fail to spot half of those having difficulties, how can parents identify a problem? The answer is simple: you just need to know what you’re looking for.

Encouraging communication As we know, it’s difficult to broach the subject of a child’s speech and language development with mum and dad, especially when the teacher suspects that one of the causes is a lack of parental engagement with their child. Yet the fact remains that parents are increasingly handing over their

child’s development to the ‘digital nanny’, which can be incredibly damaging. Research from Canada found that for every 30-minute increase in daily handheld screen time, there was an almost 50 per cent increased risk of expressive language delay. Instead of framing the conversation in terms of blame, teachers

should talk about how they can best support their child. Don’t focus on the problem: talk about everyone’s responsibility to the child’s development and how this involves work both at school and at home. Your SENCO will be able to help draw up a plan, but it’s vital that the child’s teachers are involved too. Here are a few examples of practical goals that teachers can discuss with parents: • Instilling language discipline. It’s important to pick children up on solecisms, grammatical errors and mispronunciation (“they was late again”, “must of done”) early on before they become embedded, leading to additional confusion down the line.

• Listen carefully. Parents may be unaware that they’re not giving their child’s speech the attention they need. Teachers need to talk about the importance of truly engaging with their children, asking questions to check their child’s understanding and meaning, and learning to listen to each other courteously.

• Make time to talk. This can be a difficult one to broach, since it carries with it the suggestion that parents are the cause of their child’s problem. Instead, focus on how the pressures of modern life is making conversation difficult for everybody, and talk about the important benefits of putting down screens and making time for real conversations.

None of these steps promises a ‘cure’ for SLCN, but they’re every

bit as important as the future work that the child will do with their speech therapist. By identifying the problem, securing parents’ co- operation and setting out an achievable action plan, teachers can help the whole ‘village’ to start laying the foundations for the child’s future development.

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