31 August 2020

Choosing a school for a child with speech, language and communication needs

Sarah Billingham is a specialist teacher and Head of Assessment at I CAN’s Bill Harrison Assessment Centre. Her 15 years’ experience of working with children with special educational needs, including SLCN, has helped her to understand the difference the right school can make to a child’s communication skills, confidence and wellbeing.   

For any parent, looking for a school for their child can be overwhelming. When your child has speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) however, there is even more to consider. Take a look at our tips below to help you understand whether a school can provide the best support for your child’s needs.  

Great architecture doesn’t mean great education 

School should create safe and engaging spaces for learning, but sometimes we end up placing too much emphasis on facilities. Great facilities are the cherry on the cake, but the biggest influence on your child’s education will be the quality of teaching and learning. Don’t stake it all on that great swimming pool!  

Communication supportive environment 

For children with SLCN, calm environments work best to support attention and listening. If you are visiting a school, take note of how calm and organised transition times are, such as when children move to the playground or are eating in the dining room. When looking around classrooms, can you see evidence that staff adapt the environment to support children in understanding and using language? Perhaps you will see visual timetables, symbol resources or signing. Ask how the school staff adapt their classrooms and lessons to support communication.  

Interaction is everything! 

My number one top tip when visiting schools is to observe interaction: the way the staff interact with the children, and the children with each other. The development of speech, language and communication skills are best supported by high quality modelling. Every interaction or conversation is a teachable moment, a child will learn about communication from the way staff and peers interact with them. Are the staff modelling and extending language using tools such as signs, symbols or communication boards? Are they encouraging children to make use of these tools too?  

You may spot something go awry whilst you are visiting a school – that’s ok, it happens to the best of us. What’s important is how the staff interact with and support children in these moments.  

Experience is reassuring 

Try to find out whether the staff have additional training and experience in supporting children with SLCN. If you are visiting a school that has never supported a child with similar needs to your child, this could be a huge learning curve for them. Ideally, a school would already be well equipped and experienced in implementing specialist strategies which are proven to develop speech and language skills.  

Partnership with speech and language therapists 

Children with long term and persistent SLCN will need regular access to the support of a qualified speech therapist. It is worth asking the school staff whether they have speech therapists working as part of the staff team, a visiting speech therapist, or very limited access to speech therapy.  

Consider also whether the school can provide a quiet space for one-to-one work when therapists visit: speech therapy won’t reap the same rewards in a busy corridor. Are there effective communication channels between the staff and therapists? And how will the school/therapist work in partnership with you to make important decisions about your child, keeping you in touch with their day-to-day learning and language development?  

Honesty is the best policy 

I can’t emphasise enough the importance of being honest about what your child needs and encouraging the school to be honest with you about what they feel they will be able to provide. If professionals working with your child have made a list of recommendations for their education, check with the school whether they can offer these. All schools strive to be inclusive and effective, but it is best to know up front they will not be able to offer the best support for your child. 

Flexibility 

It is amazing how much difference a positive attitude makes. If school staff are approachable, adaptable and willing to learn there is the opportunity to achieve great things together. By definition, children with Special Educational Needs require provision to be ‘additional to and different from’. (We have all heard the square pegs into round holes analogy.) The school will need to make the learning fit the child and this will involve trying something different, being willing to make mistakes and a good dose of grit to keep going.  

If the glass slipper fits 

Getting the right school for your child is about ‘best fit’. Nowhere will be totally perfect, so focus on the things that you feel are most important for your child. Listening to the experiences of others can be helpful but make your choice based on what you feel is important for your child, you know them best. Get a feel for the school and take a moment to think – could I picture my child here?  

Lastly, remember that school goes well beyond Reception and that first year will be over before you know it. Think ahead and consider whether the school will suit your child beyond their first years. 

If you would like further support in identifying what provisions would best support your child as they enter school, find out more about the services we offer at I CAN’s Bill Harrison Assessment Centre and contact the centre at assessment@ican.org.uk 

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