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The potential of inter-professional learning in supporting children with speech, language and communication needs

Jo Flanagan Bibiana Wigley

You may be aware of two pieces of research recently published about children’s speech, language and communication needs. The National Literacy Trust (Read On Get On campaign) commissioned James Law and colleagues from Newcastle University to analyse data from the Millennium Cohort Study, to see how many children in England were reaching the expected levels in language at age 5. The results were shocking. It showed that early language delay in the pre-school years continues on through childhood. They found that children who are behind at age 3 years are likely to remain behind at age five, seven and eleven years. Research published by Norberry et al in 2015 also found that summer born children do not have sufficient language skills when starting school. The study found that the youngest children in reception classes struggle to meet the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum early learning goals.

A Speech Language and Communication Need (SLCN) is often a hidden problem because few professionals or parents know what it looks and sounds like. What we know is that many children are not identified until well into their school years and do not receive the early intervention that is so crucial to enabling them to catch up and prevent later academic, social and emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Recent data produced by The Communication Trust suggests that there has been a 70% increase in the number of children with speech, language and communication needs in the last 6 years. This exponential rise in the number of children with needs and the raising of expected standards for attainment within the school curriculum are posing difficult questions for Speech and Language Therapy services and teachers. Given current budgetary constraints health services in England are being prioritised to support children with the most complex needs, whilst teachers are finding more children with language and communication needs in their classrooms. The concern is that few early years practitioners or teachers receive pre or post qualification training about how best to support these children.

Working as independent speech and language therapists we recently carried out a project in 60 Private, Voluntary and Independent (PVI) early years education and childcare settings in Derby. Principles of school improvement were utilised for culture and ethos change within these settings. To gain impact, it was imperative to work jointly with the manager of the setting (the equivalent to a headteacher in a school) rather than only working with the practitioners who work with children at the ‘chalk face’. Our aim was to raise each manager’s knowledge of what speech, language and communication needs look and sound like and enable them to develop systems to support the children with all staff within their organisation. This work took place through a process of self-evaluation, centralised training, mentoring at site visits and development of bespoke action plans for each setting. The most common areas that managers chose to develop were;

  1. Developing staff roles and responsibilities with regard to speech, language and communication
  2. Observing and developing staff interaction strategies
  3. Developing assessment, planning, moderation and tracking systems for speech, language and communication
  4. Developing the physical environment both indoors and outdoors so that it is more ‘communication friendly’
  5. Creating CPD opportunities so that staff can develop knowledge and skills about how best to support children’s speech, language and communication
  6. Developing methods of support to enable parents to create opportunities for talking with their children at home

Some training of practitioners took place during this project utilising accredited level 1 and 3 speech, language and communication training courses. We found that practitioners were most likely to embed and use newly learned skills through a process of coaching, professional discussion and reflection. The most successful method of doing this was using video coaching, where the member of staff would video a 5 minute session based on a written plan that they had devised from an element of the course. We then used the video as the basis of an inter-professional discussion with them. This coaching tool was developed with Rachel Lofthouse from the School of Education at Newcastle University, and was based on research related to the use of video in coaching by secondary teachers, and also the practices developed for Video Interaction Guidance (VIG). If you would like to know more about it, we will be presenting a paper based on our shared learning outcomes at the BERA 2015 conference.