Mislaying The Positives

I think everyone knows that the last few weeks have been a little trying. Between school residentials and transition, there has been plenty to get my knickers in a twist about (if you somehow missed it, see Hysterical , The Big Trip and Is Dysregulation Rocket Science? ). This isn’t unusual, I’m frequently banging on about some issue or other, more often than not relating to LB’s education. I’m aware though, that in getting caught up dealing with the myriad issues, it can be all too easy to skip over the positives. It means that things, that when you stop to think about them are actually amazing, can pass you by with barely an acknowledgement. I don’t want to skip over these things – these achievements of LB’s – because they are massive within the context of his history and should be given the credence they deserve. I’m going to share one thing, in particular, today. First, I need to tell you some facts.

I don’t like bragging. That’s a fact. I can’t bear it when people go to parents evening then write #giftedandtalented on Twitter or Facebook. Or when someone asks you if you’re concerned about your child and you say yes, and then they say how they aren’t at all worried about theirs because they are exceeding expectations in every area. I don’t like it when people brag about how expensive their house is or how much they earn or how clever they are or any of the others ways that people try to seem better than other people. Just, no.

Here’s another fact. When LB started pre-school, his development was measured to be two years behind the typical expectations for his age – so he was functioning round about the level of a two year old, when he was four. That’s a very tricky educational starting point. There were many barriers between LB and formal learning – behavioural, emotional, linguistic.

When LB started reception class, he couldn’t count. I’m not exaggerating – he literally couldn’t count to three in the correct order. This was not through a lack of trying on anyone’s part – it was mainly due to his Developmental Language Disorder (DLD See Developmental Language Disorder or DLD & Education ), as well as his tricky start. It did mean that numeracy was going to be extremely difficult. It is impossible to do sums if you don’t understand the currency you’re dealing with. It literally must have been like adding apples and pears for him.

By the end of year 1, though LB had made incredible progress in all areas, he had never quite managed to hit an expected level in any subject. It didn’t matter. We were extremely proud of him because of all the things he had achieved and really, from a starting point of 2 years behind, how could he?

Year 2 felt like a big jump. Year 2 had SATS. SATS were going to be hard for someone working below the expectations of the curriculum; someone who had only been able to count for 18 months or so. Fact. We didn’t even know if we’d let him sit the SATS – if they were going to feel too big an obstacle.

Somehow, despite all those facts, at the end of Year 2, LB managed not only to sit his SATS but to pass his Maths SATS. Not only that, but he smashed it, gaining close to a ‘greater depth’ score. He has also been deemed to be working at the overall expectations of the curriculum in numeracy, so in his report, he got his first green light. In fact, he got one for science too.

Why are you telling us this, if you don’t like bragging? I hear you whisper.

I’ll tell you why.

The ACE’s index (Adverse Childhood Experiences index) came about as a way of measuring the impact in later life of various different adversities that could befall a child. This is important because it is only fairly recently that society has begun to acknowledge that things that happen during childhood can continue to impact a person throughout their life. It is important we understand that childhood abuse, neglect or the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death, imprisonment or moving into the Care system doesn’t stop impacting a person once the event is over. It is really important these things are widely understood. The old adage that ‘the child is safe now so the past can be forgotten’ really does need eradicating and something like the ACE’s movement helps with this.

The ACE index also tells us that the more ACEs a person has experienced, the greater their risk of mental and physical health difficulties, substance abuse and unemployment. In short, the worse your start in life, the higher the likelihood of your life outcomes also being poor. A double-whammy body-blow.

ACES another one

 

It is beginning to be recognised that though this information is well-intentioned and to some extent needed, by encouraging people to count numbers of ACEs, you are really misunderstanding the way trauma works. It’s feasible that a person could score just 1 on the index, for an event that may only have occurred once, on one specific day. The index would suggest that this event would only have a minor impact on the person. However, from what we know of trauma, this is isn’t accurate. Depending on the person and their own reactions, that single event could have anything from a minimal to a profound lifelong impact upon the person. Similarly, because you have a large number of ACE’s, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will end up homeless, addicted to alcohol and drugs and suffering several health complaints, and I think there is a danger in suggesting you would.

ACES

 

For a young person, growing up with the knowledge they have a high ACE score could well make them feel hopeless about their future, and is that really what we want for our most vulnerable children? Surely the message should be that, yes, rubbish things that happen in childhood can impact upon a person and as a society we acknowledge it. We should also be offering all the extras a child could need – therapy, education, social/behavioural/emotional support – to help them in overcoming the impacts of those ACES. We should be acknowledging that children with any ACE score need more from us – more care, more love, more support. We should be flagging them up as at risk of the future harm the ACE index suggests whilst providing them with what they need to negate that risk.

I think there’s a danger in suggesting that something that happens early on will categorically lead to x or y later. These things are not set in stone. With the correct support, children who’ve had adverse starts in life can and do overcome the barriers their early lives attempted to block them with. I’m not saying it’s easy – it will undoubtedly be harder for them than for children without ACEs – but shouldn’t we try? Shouldn’t we aspire for the best we can for all children?

So, when a child comes from two years behind expectations, having experienced neglect and the severing of links with their biological family, and several moves, and despite all that catches up with expectations for children who have dealt with none of that, shouldn’t we be shouting from the roof tops? I think so.

Often, it is the most privileged who brag the most. It is hard to be impressed by the gains of those who already had a head start, but when the one who was lagging behind, who joined the race a long while after the others and kept on running despite being so far back, manages to catch up, that’s truly brag-worthy.

This is not all about catching-up though. Even if LB hadn’t have caught up, but had kept running, that would be a significant achievement too. He’s still running when it comes to literacy and he may always be, as may many of his other adoptee peers who have educational mountains to overcome, and I think it’s important we acknowledge that every next reading level, every percentile, every point on every scale, is harder won for our children with ACEs. But they’re doing it. They’re out there, surpassing expectations all the time. And I don’t want that to be lost in schools that don’t understand their behaviour or in parents having to fight or getting dragged down by the multitudinous battles they’re facing. We mustn’t mislay the positives. These positives are huge and indicative of something bigger even than ACEs. They’re about human fortitude and our ability to overcome. And a beacon of hope for what can be achieved, when we properly support our most vulnerable.

 

 

 

 

 

Mislaying The Positives

DLD & Education

Today there has been a web chat run by @DLDandMe all about the impact having a language disorder has on a child’s education. It is part of their wider work to raise awareness of Developmental Language Disorder  (DLD) and to spread the word to a broader audience, about what DLD is, how to recognise it etc. I joined in a little, although late, but I thought it might be useful to share more detail about this topic, from our own personal experience.

As most readers already know, I am both a speech and language therapist and Mum to our seven year old son – LB – who has DLD. There is a complication to our story, which is that LB experienced early neglect and didn’t come into our lives until he was three and half. It is pretty impossible to pick apart the different impacts of neglect and DLD, with both having made their mark. However, it was clear from fairly early on that the communication difficulties LB experienced were more significant than delay alone and where progress was quite quick in some areas, speech and language has always proved more challenging for him. As much as possible in this post, I’m going to focus on the specific ways DLD has affected LB’s educational progress, notwithstanding the separate effects trauma has had.

LB’s DLD impacted on all areas of his communication development when we first met him – including his ability to understand language (comprehension), his auditory memory, his ability to use words and make sentences (expressive language), his ability to listen and pay attention, his ability to speak clearly and his social communication. When I talk about his presentation back then, in workshops and the like, I can see that it shocks people. And it was shocking, because LB’s language system just couldn’t do what he needed it to – not one part of the complicated whole functioned as it should have. He was very much trapped inside of himself and he wasn’t left with many options other than to express himself through his behaviour.

In the early stages of his pre-school education, this impacted him in a myriad different ways. He was certainly delayed in learning concept words such as his colours, size words, same/different etc. which meant he just couldn’t follow much of the teaching or express answers to what nursery staff would likely consider easy or every day questions. That said, with specific teaching of one concept at a time and plenty of reinforcement in everyday activities and play, LB was able to close the gap pretty quickly. It isn’t that LB can’t learn, because he has developed phenomenally quickly, it’s just that he couldn’t pick these concepts up from the ether, as children with typical language skills would. He required specific teaching, repetition and showing, to get them to stick.

Obviously, struggling with comprehension made it even harder for LB to learn new things. There must have been much of what went on in Nursery that he couldn’t follow. This no doubt exacerbated his difficulties with listening and attention, because it is extremely hard work for anybody to focus on language they don’t comprehend. Imagine having to listen to French or Urdu or Finnish or any other language you aren’t familiar with, for large swathes of each day. It would be exhausting and it wouldn’t take long until you stopped listening. Therefore, in some ways, LB’s DLD exacerbated his DLD. He certainly coped better on a 1:1 and thankfully we were able to provide him with this because I was on adoption leave and he just went to pre-school for a few sessions (and now he has TA support). Keeping distraction levels down and matching our language to the level LB could cope with, was imperative. It meant we could keep language accessible for him most of the time and choose which concepts or structures we wanted to stretch him with. I guess this is where my professional background came in – I suspect creating these ideal learning conditions would be much more difficult for a child whose parents are new to the idea of DLD and whose pre-school setting don’t get it.

Certainly as LB’s comprehension developed, so too did his ability to learn. I know it sounds a bit ridiculous but he did appear to be growing cleverer. I maintain that had he have had a cognitive assessment at the beginning, and one a couple of years later, he would have climbed the percentiles. This is because learning and education is generally acquired through the currency of language. As he acquired more words, he knew what more things were. He was able to express how things work. He was able to enquire and find more information out. The more language you have, the better you become at gaining it. Initially, we just couldn’t have talked about complex ideas such as electricity or natural disasters or endangered animals or health conditions. LB didn’t have the vocabulary to access a discussion or explanation about such things so he essentially wasn’t able to learn about them. It was only when he had gained sufficient depth and breadth of vocabulary and could listen to and follow longer structures, that he was able to develop his knowledge of the world around him. And when this did happen, it was amazing to witness the world opening up to him.

Vocabulary acquisition was a huge ongoing challenge for LB (and me) for a long time. Initially, even though we used lots and lots of modelling strategies, he didn’t seem to be growing a larger vocabulary. Again, like with other aspects of his language system, the more he heard a word used and the more times he managed to store a new one, the better his language processing system got. He has certainly got quicker at acquiring new words, even if this continues to be hard for him. Evidently LB’s language processing system (the bit of our brains that hears words, de-codes them, decides what sounds are in them, and their meaning, and stores them in an organised way, ready to be spoken) was not well-developed. It was laborious for him to use it, meaning that getting his vocabulary as big as he needed it to be must have been an exhausting task for him.

Where LB would once have needed to hear a word used around him for several months, with a high level of repetition, before being able to store and use it, he can now store a new word almost immediately. This has had a huge impact on his ability to be able to keep up with the curriculum. Each new topic brings a cornucopia of new words, which children are expected to immediately absorb in order to follow teaching. If you can’t understand the new words, it’s extremely difficult to follow the new lessons.

Although speedier, LB’s processing system remains inaccurate – he struggles to de-code words so that, without help, he might store ‘Corvette’ as “courgette” or ‘submarine’ as “subramine”. He is aware of this so often requests help – just having someone break a word down into bite-size syllables is a huge help to him and allows him to store a new word correctly. At school he has word webs for new words and is building up a personalised dictionary with his TA.

Despite all the hurdles, LB’s comprehension skills have caught up. He seems able to access the vast majority of teaching in his year 2 classroom without too much difficulty. He does cope better with multi-sensory teaching and visual supports (such as narrative grids, Mind Maps etc.), not least because they help to hold his attention. When LB is tired, his skills in this area do diminish a little and he might need a bit more repetition but overall I think his progress underlines what the right speech and language therapy input can achieve for children with DLD.

LB’s difficulties with auditory memory have impacted in several ways – most notably on his ability to blend sounds together and to learn listed information. Literacy acquisition was always going to be a challenge for LB, as his speech continued to be unintelligible well into year 1, with vowel distortions, and his sound awareness skills (identifying the first sound in words, rhyme, syllables etc) were poor. Even the pre-reading task of describing what’s happening in a picture was ridiculously difficult, because LB didn’t have the sentence structures or vocabulary he needed in his expressive language – something else we taught specifically.

We worked hard on sound awareness in a stepwise manner – identifying the first sound of short words then longer words, then the last sound of short words etc., alongside attending speech and language therapy. Again, I feel that good phonological awareness skills are something LB wouldn’t have been able to acquire organically, but he was very much capable of achieving on a 1:1 basis with a personalised approach.

We stumbled at the point of blending sounds together – a critical final step before literacy could be gained. The difficulty it turned out, after a bit of ‘diagnostic therapy’ (again, thank goodness for my career) was the blasted auditory memory which was struggling to hold three sounds, let alone stick them together. Once more, practise paid off and eventually LB could blend. Which, having already learned his letter shapes – pretty easily, it was a visual task – meant he could read. Progress has been steady since that point, with him progressing through the reading levels as you’d expect. In my opinion, a good phonics approach is essential for a child with DLD. It was a challenge to establish that strong foundation but once it was in place, it served LB well. He is not yet meeting the expectations of the curriculum but his reading is good; he understands text and he can apply his phonic skills to decipher most words. Crucially, he loves books and listening to stories. Keeping things as fun and engaging as possible is another essential tool in encouraging a child with DLD.

However, LB is not yet ready to apply his phonic skills to writing, finding this laborious. The addition of SPAG requirements such as including a noun phrase, or adverbial, pretty much renders writing the very worst aspect of school life for LB and, in my humble opinion, totally takes the fun and imagination out of it for all children.

It is hard to get LB’s teachers to understand just how many demands writing places on the language system of child with DLD. My hunch is that when his reading skills are better still and he’s had more specific phonics teaching, his ability to spell will improve. I suspect that expressing himself on paper, with appropriate grammar, will always have its challenges.

The other area auditory memory difficulties have impacted is LB’s ability to learn listed or sequential information such as the days of the weeks, months and, perhaps most crucially, how to count. Learning the numbers to ten proved extraordinarily challenging for LB so that when he started school, aged 4 and half, he couldn’t count to three in the correct order. The knock on effect of this was that Maths was pretty much impossible. How can you do sums when you haven’t the basic language for it? When “4” or “732” are just as meaningless and unquantifiable? This certainly held LB back and for the first year, perhaps two, of his education, his literacy skills appeared better than his numeracy ones, which lagged significantly behind. However, all the repetition and visual representation eventually paid off and LB learned to count to 10. And then 20. Very soon after that, probably because he could use his logic and ability to see patterns, he could get to 100. Once he had the language, Maths wasn’t so hard at all. In fact, it looks as though LB will meet the expected levels of the National Curriculum for the first time this year, which is no mean feat, given his starting point. Now that he has the language, even the reasoning SATS paper is accessible to him, despite the problems being presented in word form.

Having DLD has made every aspect of LB’s education more challenging for him. However, with the right support, LB has proved over and over again, what children with DLD can achieve and how crucial getting that support in place is. Language underlies all learning and we ignore that at the peril of children with DLD.

 

 

DLD & Education