In his government commissioned review of services for young people with communication difficulties, John Bercow made a powerful case for early intervention by highlighting the “multiple risks” that children face when their communication needs are not met. These include “lower educational attainment, behaviour problems, emotional and psychological difficulties, poorer employment prospects, challenges to mental health and, in some cases, a descent into criminality.” (Bercow, 2008:7)
That review was written a decade ago and I Can, the children’s communication charity, is undertaking a review of progress, ten years on. We await the outcome of this. However, when current educational discourse is such that an awareness-raising campaign – No Pens Day – causes ‘rage’ amongst influential EduTweeters, it is probably advisable to manage expectations around the impact of Bercow. For at least three reasons, this is little short of tragic.
Reason one: communication difficulties are often never identified
Many children and young people do not receive support for their language and communication needs for the simple reason that their difficulties are never identified – or they are identified too late. Unless there are articulation problems affecting speech, language impairment can be a hidden difficulty: we can understand what pupils say to us and we assume that they in turn can understand what we say to them. It is not surprising, therefore, that problems around identification have been identified as a key issue in the SLCN (Speech, Language and Communication Needs) field.
A key study was undertaken by Conti-Ramsden and Botting in 1999. The researchers found that of an estimated 5% of Year 2 children with language deficits, only 1% were identified on special needs registers. The 4% who did not have their primary learning needs met at this early stage in their education were evidently often referred to support services for other reasons, such as slow educational progress, poor reading comprehension or challenging behaviour. (e.g. Beitchman, 1985). Individual Education Plans therefore focused on these secondary effects rather than on underlying language problems. More recent research would suggest that the situation has improved little, if at all. According to Bercow, identification of language impairment remains, “grossly inadequate”, (Bercow, 2008: 18) with many young people never receiving support for their difficulties.
Misconceptions are, it seems, rife. Beitchman et al. (1999) suggest that language impairment is often misinterpreted as non-compliance with practitioners failing to appreciate the difference between poor receptive language and inability to comprehend instructions. Vallance et al. (1999) report that around 50% of children receiving services for a range of adjustment disorders actually display language impairments when specifically tested. In an investigation of a special unit for children with BESD, Burgess and Bransby found that 16 out of 17 had communication difficulties for which speech and language therapy was recommended. 11 of these were described as having severe difficulties, but they did not have the obvious problems with speech that would have alerted professionals to their needs at an earlier stage.
Reason two: unmet communication needs lead to social exclusion
Communication, at first non-verbal but later verbal, is of prime importance in establishing social relationships. When children are unable to participate in satisfying interactions, their opportunities to form positive relationships are reduced. Studies of language impaired young children have found that problems begin early and may even be evident in pre-school settings: Hadley and Rice found that “Preschoolers behave as if they know who talks well and who does not and they prefer to interact with those who do.” (1991: 342). Consequently, language impaired children have fewer opportunities to practice their skills and fall further behind peers.
This is confirmed by many studies showing that they are, for example, less adaptive to the feelings and needs of their listeners (Bergman, 1987), less able to be tactful (Bliss, 1992), less able to interpret social clues (Schumaker and Hazel, 1984) and more limited in their ability to negotiate (Gallagher, 1993). This lack of social skill may lead ultimately to social rejection. Benner et al (2002) summarise the research evidence by maintaining that “language impairments appear to have a devastating effect on interpersonal relationships. (Benner, 2002: 44).
Social problems persist and even intensify into adolescence where the verbal environment becomes more challenging. Quick-fire interactions and jokes, adolescent slang, idiomatic language and puns which depend on understanding ambiguity become increasingly important in defining group membership. (e.g. Whitmore, 2000). Given the central importance of the peer group in developmental terms – adolescents need ‘cliques’ (Dunphy, 1963) as sources of psychological support while striving for autonomy from their parents – failure to succeed in this environment has serious implications. Longitudinal studies have shown a significant correlation between how well children and adolescents get on with their peers and mental health in later life. (Kimmel and Kimmel, 1995).
Reason three: language deficit feeds the school to exclusion to prison pipeline
Gallagher emphasises the key role of language in his description of ‘executive control’:
Children’s language comprehension and expressive skills are critical to their understanding, encoding, organization, and retrieval of rules that enable them to effect appropriate levels of self-control and emotional self regulation. Language skills facilitate executive control …. by providing a means for self reflection, verbal mediation, response inhibition, and behavioural direction.
This is often referred to in the field as ‘self-talk’ or ‘private, internal speech’; that is, “Speech uttered aloud by children that is addressed to the self or no-one in particular.” (Berk and Potts, 1991) Children with impaired language development are often described as impulsive and unable to follow social rules because they lack these verbal strategies needed to control behaviour.
For normally developing young children, language becomes a substitute for action as they begin to understand what is said to them and to express their needs verbally. However, as Gallagher (1999) found, language impaired children are more likely to use direct physical action to express needs and in this way a strong association between anti-social behaviour and language deficit develops.
Behaviour can become more challenging in the secondary phase if there is no intervention for students with communication difficulties. Benner (2002) cites several longitudinal studies that suggest the strength of the relationship between language impairment and anti-social behaviour increases over time. (e.g. Baker and Cantwell, 1980, 1987). Whitmore (2000) characterises transition from primary to secondary school as a move away from the “student centred” environment to a “subject centred” one. The increased social challenge outlined above is therefore mirrored by an academic one with an explosion of new terminology, much of it abstract, and greatly increased listening demands: Richards (1978) and Benner (2008) claim that secondary school students are expected to learn through listening 90% of the time. Ehren (1994) produced a comprehensive list of the ways in which this suddenly increased academic (and social) challenge can affect the language impaired learner. Difficulties include not following instructions; asking irrelevant questions; not participating in class discussions; relating poorly to authority figures; getting along poorly with peers and interacting in an irrelevant way in conversations with both peers and adults. (Ehren, 1994: 398).
All of these behaviours, and many more identified by Ehren, have the effect of alienating the language impaired pupil and it is not surprising that so many become withdrawn or show anger and frustration. According to Benner et al (2002), a range of studies suggest that those with expressive language difficulties are more prone to the former whilst receptive language difficulties tend to be acted out: Cohen, Davine, Horodezsky and Isaacson (1993), for example, found that children with undetected receptive language deficits were rated as the most aggressive by teachers. Heneker (2005) found that of 11 students in a pupil referral unit (PRU), 91% had some difficulties with receptive langauge.
As Ripley et al. (2001) note, the national agenda on the prevention of exclusions must surely address the issue of unmet communication needs with a plethora of studies stemming back to the 1980s now clearly identifying this as a high risk group.
“The most effective way to reduce or prevent offending is to provide the right level of support at the time it is needed.”
(Dr. B. Lockhart, OBE, cited in Youth Justice Agency Conference Report, 2009: 5)
According to Youth Justice Agency statistics, over 60% of young people in the criminal justice system have language difficulties. Exacerbating this problem is the fact, highlighted in the YJA report just cited, that current offender treatment programmes are language-based and therefore inaccessible to the majority of young offenders. These young people are subsequently more likely to reoffend than those without language deficits. (e.g. Davis et al: 2004).
Clearly, there is an urgent need for greater awareness and intervention in this area, starting in our schools; the human and social cost of failing to provide people with the help they need in order to participate positively in the world around them is too great to ignore. Describing communication as “the missing link in the social exclusion chain”, Beardshaw and and Hosford (2009:3) outline a dismal and well-trodden path:
This is a challenge that many young people are facing today. They don’t have the language to express themselves, solve problems, support each other, or learn. Without this ‘map’, children are more likely to follow a well-trodden pathway of acronyms; from ASBO to NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) and from PRU (Pupil Referral Unit), to HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) via the YOI (Young Offenders’ Institution). As in the classroom, language is the conduit for interventions, support and help in these institutions. It is estimated that 60-90% of vulnerable young people have communication difficulties. How can these young people progress without language skills?
For too long, Bercow concluded, policy makers and educators have neglected the needs of those who find communication difficult, focusing on other elements of the child development agenda:
It is time to call a halt to the sequence of low priority, neglect and poor performance. People with SLCN (speech, language and communication needs) don’t want to be kept waiting, left floundering and forced to struggle. They don’t want sympathy. They want empathy, understanding and action.
(Bercow, 2008: 67)
Recent research confirms that between 40% and 56% of socially disadvantaged children begin school with language delay, so this lack of empathy, understanding and action only entrenches disadvantage and widens the gap: ‘Matthew effects’ ensure that the language rich children get richer, and the poor poorer, with all that means in terms of compromised outcomes for the poorer group. Clearly, identifying communication needs and helping children develop good communication skills is an urgent social justice issue. That is why we have campaigns like No Pens Day and that is why every school should support them.