Practical strategies and specific solutions for helping pupils with communication and interaction difficulties to overcome barriers to learning, plus an update on special schools funding

Support for SENCOs

Removing barriers to learning for pupils with communication and interaction difficulties
Being unable to express yourself and make your needs known must be one of the most frustrating of human experiences. Similarly, trying and failing to understand what someone else is struggling to convey can be extremely disheartening. 

If you’ve ever played the party game where you have to mime or draw a book title or film etc and been unable to get your message across, you may have an insight into what it can feel like to be in this position. Similar frustration can arise when you try to communicate with people who speak a different language. If you want to engage colleagues in some professional development on this subject, simulating this type of experience can provide a useful start to the session.

The particular needs of the child with a language delay and one with an autistic spectrum disorder may be very different, but both can find themselves without friends, isolated at break times and often an easy target for bullies. In the classroom, their difficulties affect their ability to participate and to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do. However, there are a number of general strategies that teachers can use to help remove barriers to learning. Make sure that all adults working in school are aware of children’s needs and the approaches being used to help them.

Environment: use visual prompts, gestures and/or a signing system (eg Makaton) to reinforce spoken and written language. Make a visual timetable. Eliminate extraneous noise as far as possible. Remember the importance of calming colours and avoid overloading the senses with too much vivid display material.

Routine: this is vital to alleviate confusion and give children a sense of security. When routines have to be broken, ensure that children are prepared whenever possible, and that someone talks them through what is going to happen. Familiarise them, in advance, with new teachers and settings – perhaps providing them with photographs, and making visits to their new classroom. Expectations should be consistent, as far as possible, throughout the school.

Verbal instructions: keep them short and precise. Ensure that children know you are addressing them, not someone else. Give one instruction at a time. Speak clearly, at a natural pace and make sure that the child can see your face. Use gesture/signing to back up verbal language. Avoid figurative language; idioms such as ‘pull your socks up’ may be taken literally – these will need to be taught explicitly. Tell a child what to do rather than what not to do.

Respect: don’t force children and young people to work in pairs or groups if they are clearly uncomfortable in that situation. Respect differences and be aware of the social networks of the classroom. Activities such as ‘circle of friends’ and the use of ‘social stories’ can prove useful.

Praise: reinforce all attempts to communicate. Avoid correcting a child’s spoken language, but provide a good model and opportunities to practise. Use a child’s specific interests to expand use of language and social skills.

Multi-sensory: make use of visual and kinaesthetic strategies for teaching and learning. But remember that although the child with  language delay may love the sand and water, the one with autism may hate the feel of it!

Non-curricular activities: problems often arise at play/break time, lunchtime, at the bus stop or any other unstructured time of the day. It is during these times when computer clubs, organised games and mentors offer valuable support – and can also provide some training in social skills that will help pupils to cope with new situations.

Specific solutions

Where the child has difficulty in speaking

  • Allow extra time for the child to respond, don’t hurry him to give an answer.
  • Consider whether he might benefit from using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) or (for a child with significant difficulties) a voice output communication aid (VOCA).
  • Learning a signing system such as British Sign Language (BSL) or Makaton may be useful (teachers and peers will also need to learn).
  • Teach new vocabulary (including subject-specific words). Have a ‘word of the day/week’ for the whole class.
  • Practise sentence building and sequencing.
  • Introduce ‘talking partners’ and use speaking frames.

Where the child has difficulty in planning, organising ideas and formulating language

  • A buddy or teaching assistant can help the pupil to organise his ideas.
  • Use a planning/writing/recording frame to help with structure (particularly useful for practical investigations).
  • Sequencing activities can be supported by using an overlay keyboard (eg Intellitools Activity Exchange) .
  • Idea/concept mapping can be useful. 
  • Use reading sessions to explore meaning, cause and effect.
  • Teach pupils how to use coloured pens to highlight different sorts of information for  note-making, revision etc.

Where the child has difficulties with interaction

  • Always use the child’s name before giving an instruction: he may not understand that you mean him if you say, ‘Red table go and get your coats now’.
  • At story time, allow a child with ASD to sit on a cushion or inside a plastic hoop, to safeguard his personal space. Older pupils may need to sit at the end of a row.
  • Use visual backup wherever possible: visual timetables/instructions, reminder strips, concrete apparatus; picture symbols to support speech eg Picture Exchange Communication System ( digital photos and clip art.
  • Make computers available. They allow pupils to work without distraction, and are not demanding in emotional terms, as people often are. They also offer a means by which teachers and other learners can share a focus with autistic pupils.
  • Repeat an instruction if appropriate, but remember that re-wording may help the child with a language delay, but confuse a child with autism.
  • Phrase questions carefully. Closed questions require a simple answer which may be  right or wrong, or may indicate a preference (‘Do you want orange squash or milk?’); they provide a safer situation for children with autism than open questions, (‘What do you like to drink?’) 
  • Ask the child to explain to someone else what they have to do, to check their understanding.
  • Teach a routine phrase that the child can use when he doesn’t understand (make sure all adults know about it!) or use a card for the child to hold up when help is needed.
  • Teach metaphors, jokes and puns when appropriate.
  • Teach the meaning behind facial expressions.
  • Create an area (workstation) where the child with interaction difficulties can choose to work; they will need to be taught how and when to use such areas.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2007

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.