Ensuring Children’s Speech and Language Needs Are Met: A Call to Action

As most of you know I am a speech and language therapist and my son, Little Bear, has Developmental Language Disorder   (DLD) so it is no surprise that meeting children’s communication needs is kind of a big deal for me. A recent report has come out reviewing speech and language therapy services for children and the findings are a little damning. It is called Bercow10 as it is written by John Bercow (of MP and having-a-bit-of- a-naughty-wife fame) in partnership with ICAN and the RCSLT and is a follow up to the original Bercow report which was written 10 years ago. It is a very important document and I want to share some salient points with you. As many of my readers are involved with adoption in some way, I am going to focus in particular on the bits of the report that are relevant for looked after children, children with mental health needs and children who become involved with youth offending. However, this is something that EVERYBODY needs to know about so please don’t look away, even if you don’t have any obvious connections to the content.

The report begins with an important message: “The most fundamental life skill for children is the ability to communicate” but it goes on to say that “as a nation, we have yet to grasp the significance of this”. This certainly seems to be the case as there are more than 1.4 million children in the UK with speech, language or communication needs (SLCN) yet it is not something we really hear talked about and most people have never heard of DLD despite it being one of the most common disorders of childhood. We hear a lot about the ‘obesity epidemic’ as it has a physical impact on children and a financial impact on the country. Bercow says that SLCN has a developmental impact on children as well as a social and economic impact and should similarly be considered an issue of public health. Being as SLCN impacts upon a child’s education, social, emotional and mental health and their future life chances it is a much bigger issue than it is given credence for.

A good starting point is to raise awareness of SLCN and what that means and what it looks like. If you want to know more about how Little Bear has been impacted by his language difficulties, see these previous blog posts: Living with Speech and Language DifficultiesCommunication Difficulties: Update

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, whether that is due to social disadvantage or maltreatment, are disproportionately affected by SLCN: in some areas as many as 50% of children have language disorder and Looked After Children have poorer language on school entry compared to those who are not Looked After. Children considered high-risk for harm, such as those on a Child Protection Order face a higher risk of SLCN as do children who live with domestic violence. Across the care system as a whole, 63% of children have SLCN, compared to 10% in the non-care experienced population. This makes our most vulnerable children even more vulnerable to poor life outcomes. Children with SLCN in early years are twice as likely to develop social, emotional and behavioural difficulties and are at greater risk of depression or anxiety. Children with poor vocabularies are twice as likely to be unemployed as adults compared to those with age-appropriate language skills.

The statistics are pretty scary. What is also very worrying and makes my heart break a little is that many children’s difficulties are missed or misdiagnosed. Studies have shown that 81% of children with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties, including those with conduct disorder or ADHD have significant undiagnosed SLCN. If we extrapolate that a little, the picture seems even worse. These children, who cannot learn in school (because the curriculum is not accessible to them and teaching is not differentiated for them), often go on to engage is risky behaviours – drug-taking, crime etc. and unfortunately many will go on to find themselves in the youth justice system. Another study shows that 60% of children in the youth justice service have low language skills, often lower than an average 11 year old. Imagine having to be interviewed and appear in court when you cannot access classroom language let alone legal jargon. Many of these young people are then expected to engage with various programmes to aid with their rehabilitation. Statistics suggest that 40% of young people cannot access the content of these ‘verbally mediated interventions’ due to their language difficulties.

If children do not get their needs identified at any early stage and do not receive the therapy they require, the consequences can be dire. This is what Bercow means when he talks about social and economic impact. I think this particularly upsets me because had life been a little different for Little Bear, he could all too easily have fallen victim to this pattern. His behaviour did come before him and had we not been able to see beyond that and not recognised his DLD (and developmental trauma), things could have been very different. Before Little Bear was adopted at the age of 3 and a half, although there was a vague indication in his paperwork that he might have some language delay, he had not been formally assessed by a speech and language therapist. I was shocked at the severity of his communication needs the first time I met him and his language was later assessed as being more than 2 years delayed. I’m not quite sure what other signs would have been needed for a referral to have been triggered but he was certainly at risk of falling through the cracks.

I think there are two key things here. Firstly, if a child is presenting with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties, they should have a speech and language assessment as a matter of course. Behaviour itself is a communication and people in general need to get much better at looking beyond it. The second thing is that other professionals need to become more knowledgeable about SLCN; teachers, health visitors, the police etc. all need to be aware of the ‘red flags’ and seek help to prevent life escalating away from vulnerable children.

The bleak picture I’m painting could possibly all come good if there were excellent speech and language therapy services available to meet need once children were referred. However Bercow is pretty damning about this too. There continues to be a post-code lottery when it comes to availability and quality of services: of all the 2500 respondents, only 15% felt services were available as necessary. More than 50% of people had waited longer than 6 months to receive the therapy they needed and 34% had waited more than a year. This is a statistic I can empathise with as we had to wait over 8 months for Little Bear to be seen for the first time and a year for therapy to begin (see A bit of a rant).

This isn’t good enough. I was lucky to have my professional knowledge to fall back on and could begin helping Little Bear from day one. However, most adopters or foster carers do not have that level of knowledge and couldn’t be expected to. A year is too long to wait for a child who has already been neglected and needs immediate support. Due to Little Bear’s behaviour, our adoption began at crisis point. Thankfully we were able to identify there was a communication element to his needs, as well as developmental trauma, and could begin to tackle it. As most adopters do not happen also to be speech therapists, they would be unlikely to be pre-armed with the knowledge and strategies required. The impact of not receiving support in a timely fashion could be catastrophic.

Our story does provide some good news though, thankfully. The thing is that when quality speech and language therapy is provided, it is extremely effective (see Speech Therapy Works). Despite starting pre-school at the level of a 16 month old across all areas of development, with communication being one of the most difficult areas for Little Bear, by the age of 6 his language levels had improved to within the expected range for his age. Admittedly he received a high level of input, both at home, in clinic and at school but that input was effective. Our story shows that as bleak as this situation seems to be, it doesn’t need to be hopeless. If change can be brought about, services can be improved and awareness can be raised, we can literally transform lives.

Bercow 10 doesn’t just highlight problems, it makes practical recommendations for change under the following headings: communication is crucial; a strategy for system change; an accessible and equitable service for all families; support that makes an impact; early identification and intervention are essential. You can read the full recommendations document here: Bercow10 recommendations

And if you are feeling very keen, you can read the whole report here (it’s really well written and a lot more accessible than I expected): Bercow10 whole report

What can you do to improve outcomes for children?

In order for change to happen, people need to know about the current situation. They need to know about Bercow 10 and its contents. @GillianRudd has begun a petition to bring discussion of Bercow10 to the government to ask them to ensure the implementation of the recommendations so that children’s communication needs can finally be met appropriately. 10,000 signatures are needed for the government to respond to the petition and 100,000 for it to be considered for debate in Parliament. You could help by signing the petition and asking one person you know to sign it too. Just follow this link: petition

Please share this post far and wide to get the message out there.

It is essential that schools, health visitors, psychologists, CAMHS services, doctors and the Police know about Bercow10. Could you share the link with your child’s school or other professional?

If you want to get even more involved than that, see the Calls to Action section of the website: Calls to Action 

Thank you very much in advance for signing petitions and sharing etc. Change has to happen.

 

 

*This post is based on my personal reading and interpretation of the Bercow10 report. If you want to know the sources of my statistics, please see the report.

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Ensuring Children’s Speech and Language Needs Are Met: A Call to Action

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