Creating a communication-friendly school (Part 1)

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In the first part of a two-part article, Rosie Eachus looks at making the physical environment communication-friendly.

 Summary

  • The Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Code of Practice (2015) says that all schools must publish how they adapt their environments for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities.
  • Children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) can have difficulties with listening, understanding, talking and social interaction.
  • It is estimated that at least 3 pupils in every class of 30 will have some kind of SLCN and, in areas of social deprivation, this figure is often far higher.
  • For a school to make itself more communication-friendly, it needs to address both its physical environment as well as its teaching and learning strategies.
  • In November 2017, Ofsted published Bold beginnings, a report which suggests that one key feature of best practice in Reception classes is where ‘headteachers prioritised language and literacy’.

Ofsted inspectors want schools to demonstrate that teaching and learning for all pupils with SEND is good, or better, and that behaviour is managed in schools with clear rules and boundaries. Ofsted inspectors also want to see evidence that teaching assistants (TAs) are being trained and employed effectively. TAs are often key personnel in supporting pupils with SEND, but effective provision for SEND pupils demands a whole-school approach.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Code of Practice (2015) says that all schools must publish how they adapt their environments to enable pupils with special educational needs and disabilities, including those whose needs fall under the broad category of ‘Communication and Interaction’, to access all aspects of the school’s curriculum. Creating a communication-friendly school can help headteachers meet the objectives of the SEND Code of Practice and fulfil Ofsted’s requirements.

The SEND Code of Practice (2015) broad area of need, ‘Communication and Interaction’ encompasses students with a wide range of speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). Pupils with SLCN include pupils with specific language difficulties, phonological and articulation difficulties, dyspraxia, pupils on the autistic spectrum and social communication disorders. Pupils with physical and sensory needs including hearing impairments, as well as pupils with other cognitive needs, often have SLCN.

Children with SLCN can have difficulties with listening, understanding, talking and social interaction. It is estimated that at least 3 pupils in every class of 30 will have some kind of SLCN and, in areas of social deprivation, this figure is often far higher. There is a strong link between SLCN and specific literacy difficulties. Unmet SLCN is often associated with challenging behaviours, and it is estimated that around 70% of young offenders may have undiagnosed SLCN. It is important for schools to make sure provision for pupils with any kind of speech, language and communication need is right.

For a school to make itself more communication-friendly, it needs to address both its physical environment as well as teaching and learning strategies. These should be assessed and addressed as part of your school’s improvement cycle.

A communication-friendly school addresses its physical environment by looking at the following key areas.

Physical layout and space

It is important to make sure your school has places where conversation is encouraged. Teachers should look at the layout of their classrooms and try to organise flexible seating so that pupils have the chance to talk in small groups and pairs. Ideally, a school could create ‘chat rooms’, for example an empty classroom, or a designated outdoor ‘room’. These should be comfortably furnished to encourage pupils to sit and talk to each other. Board and card games can help encourage appropriate turn-taking skills in these areas. There should also be areas around the school where two or three pupils can sit and chat. This could be as simple as putting two benches together in the playground, at an angle to encourage conversation. In classrooms, pupils all need to be able to see the teacher when the teacher is talking, without having to swivel round in their chairs.

Noise levels

In order for effective conversation and talk to take pace, noise levels need to be considered. Many pupils, especially those with SLCN, find it difficult to filter out background noise in order to listen effectively. Classrooms should be audited and children asked whether overhead lights, heaters and electrical equipment are creating unwanted noise. Acoustics of classrooms and social spaces should be considered – carpet tiles and soft ‘feet’ for chair and table legs can make a big difference. Some classrooms have also introduced ‘no shoes’ and found that this reduces noise levels.

Lunchtimes are often times when social communication should be developing; however, the background noise in many school dining halls can often discourage children who need the most support for their social communication. Headteachers can support better communication at these times by considering acoustics and making ‘talking rules’ which are visually supported with pictures.

Lighting

Effective communication means that talking partners should be able to see each other clearly. Teachers need to make sure their faces are not in shadow so that pupils can see their faces clearly and they should try not to stand with their back to a window. Care needs to be taken when setting up seating arrangements in classrooms and in dining halls so that lighting does not hinder communication.

Visual support

It is important to label and signpost areas of the school and classroom, with pictures as well as words so that pupils who struggle to read can still access the labels. This is still important in secondary schools.

Teachers need to be aware of the importance of non-verbal communication: using gestures and signs can make it easier for pupils to access what the teacher is saying if they have difficulties listening, hearing or understanding.

Pictures and objects should be used as much as possible to illustrate stories as well as instructions.

A visual timetable gives all pupils an overview of their day, and reduces anxiety for pupils who find coping with change difficult. Attaching pictures with Velcro, or putting them in clear plastic wallets, means that changes to a timetable can be clearly signalled.

Pictures with faces showing different emotions can be displayed in classrooms and around schools to help pupils explain how they are feeling.

Clear routines are important for behaviour management and should be supported with pictures.

Many children with SLCN can be managed effectively in mainstream schools with ‘universal’ teaching strategies. These strategies will not only benefit your pupils with SEND, but will make it even easier for all children in your school to access the curriculum. Schools can access various training in order to help them become more ‘communication-friendly’. Local speech and language therapy departments may offer bespoke training for clusters of schools or contribute to local authority training for TAs. Please see the ‘Further information’ box below for more information on communication-friendly training.

Further information

  • Bold beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools, Ofsted, November 2017: http://bit.ly/2AoWxFD
  • Special educational needs and disability code of practice: 0 to 25 years, DfE/DoH, May 2015: http://bit.ly/1kOCi5i
  • Elklan runs accredited courses where schools can receive ‘Communication Friendly’ status: www.elklan.co.uk
  • The Communication Trust has produced an ‘All together now’ toolkit to help schools become more communication-friendly: www.thecommunicationtrust.org.uk/resources
  • Resources produced by the Inclusion Development Programme are also free and still relevant: www.idponline.org.uk

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Rosie Eachus has been a qualified speech and language therapist for 26 years. She has run story-telling groups in mainstream primary schools and is currently working at a senior school supporting pupils with dyslexia, dyspraxia and mild ASD.

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About Author

Rosie Eachus

Rosie Eachus has been a qualified speech and language therapist for 26 years. She has run storytelling groups in mainstream primary schools and is currently working at a senior school supporting pupils with dyslexia, dyspraxia and mild ASD. rosieeachus@aol.com

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