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Supporting Speech Language and Communication Needs During Times of Change

Alex Marris, Advisory Teacher for Interaction and Communication looks at how to spot and support SLCN during change and uncertainty.

2020 has been an unprecedented year for everyone. Those working in education have not only had to deal with personal challenges but also the numerous changes to the way schools operate. As well as navigating their own way through these changes, educators also must help and guide the children they work with to understand and deal with the constant change the pandemic has brought. As we learn to live with our second national lockdown, it is important that we are mindful of the impact these changes could have on children, particularly those with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) as they may not be able to communicate exactly how they are feeling.

We have all probably heard the phrase ‘all behaviour is communication’ and we know that children tend to express how they are feeling through their behaviour. As children’s emotional regulation systems are still developing, at times of change or challenge they might display a fight, flight or freeze reaction. As a result, children need the adults around them to scaffold language to help them express how they are feeling.

A recent report compiled by the Princes Trust found 43 per cent of young people across the UK feel their anxiety levels have increased as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic. While 32 per cent say they feel ‘overwhelmed’ with feelings of panic and anxiety on a daily basis. While not all of these young people will have speech, language and communication needs, it is likely many will, as studies have shown that in some areas of the country over 50 per cent of children start school with a speech, language or communication need.

The communication chain

The communication chain is the process that we use to communicate. It involves three phases; it starts with the recognising or input phase, this is where we use our receptive language skills to recognise, process and understand what someone has said to us. Next is the processing phase where we formulate our response. Finally, we have the output phase where we communicate our response using our expressive language skills. If there is a breakdown at any stage of the communication chain this will affect the person’s ability to hear, understand and respond to what is being said.

Any child who has difficulty in one or more of the steps in the communication chain (shown in the image above) could be described as having some sort of speech, language, or communication need. For many children their speech, language and communication needs remain undetected, but it does not mean that they are not present and real.

Practical tips to support SLCN

So, what can we do to help support children and young people during this time - particularly those who have speech, language and communication needs? Here are five practical tips.

1. Take time, stand back and observe closely.

This will allow you to be alert to any changes in a child’s typical behaviour and to think whether this could be linked to possible difficulties in the communication chain?

Be mindful to not ask too many questions. The ‘hand rule’ may be helpful to remember, one question to every four: - comments

- repetitions

- expansions

- or explanations

2. Help children to air any concerns they might have, by building opportunities to share views into the day.

Some children with SLCN may not feel comfortable or may not have the ability to verbalise how they are feeling. Some non-verbal ways for children to share how they are feeling include the use of a worry box, worry wall or Carol Gray’s comic strip conversation approach. To find out more visit

Visuals for different emotions are also very useful to help children identify and label their emotions. Kuypers’ Zones of Regulation is another very useful tool. For more information see . Adults also have a key role to play in helping children to acknowledge and name their feelings. It is also helpful for adults to be mindful of their body language, they should aim to mirror the expression of the child to help validate their emotion.

Emotion Coaching can be used to help children self-regulate and manage their stress responses. For a step by step guide to practicing Emotion Coaching, read our recent Learning Exchange article, by Dr Francesca Heffernan here.

3. Stick to the facts.

Stick to the facts and use language that will be easy for children to understand. It may be helpful to plan the language you are going to use in advance. Consistency is also very important as consistent responses are reassuring to children. Where possible use visuals to support key messages.

4. Listen.

Get down to the child’s level to show them they have your full attention. It can often be useful to check what the child has said for example phrases like, “you’re feeling upset… have I got that right?” can also be helpful to name the feeling.

5. Emphasise what is the same whilst highlighting difference.

Keep as many things the same as possible. Where there are changes to routines, rules or systems try to make these as visual as possible and display and refer to them for longer than you would normally expect. Visuals help to reduce the working memory load.

During times of change and uncertainty children will no doubt need this support more than ever.

Alex Marris is an advisory teacher for interaction and communication with Applied Psychologies. Join Alex for online Vocabulary training, 10am Saturday 12th December and SLCN in the Early Years, 3.45pm Monday 18th January. For more information on Alex’ events and other training coming up visit our events page here.

If you’re looking for SLCN support in your setting, get in touch on or call 01482 643458 to see when Alex or our speech and language therapist, Rachel are available.

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