SLCN: A difficulty in understanding?

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Continuing his SecEd series, Daniel Sobel describes a common intervention scenario that he sees in schools and which often goes wrong because we don’t spot the student’s primary need

The following case captures a number of common occurrences that I come across in schools. I want to hone in on one particular aspect because it is something that is often missed or, if it is spotted, it is considered a secondary factor when in actual fact it should be the starting point:

A student arrives into your pastoral responsibility in the middle of the term as part of a managed move arrangement that your school has with a neighbouring school. This is meant to be a fresh start and you do your best to meet the parent/guardians, lay out your expectations and you put in some transitional support, which includes an older student buddy and a teacher-mentor. You hold your breath.
It’s 10 days when the first infraction happens. It’s in maths and you think that the teacher probably had something to do with not handling the situation well, but nonetheless the student did seem to be attention-seeking and/or work-avoiding in their behaviour.
So you chat with the student and after a while it occurs to you that his speech is unusually slow, that he’s just avoiding you in conversation, or that he seems to have a bit of a speech impediment (but only with certain words).
You try to find out slightly more about the maths incident, but he doesn’t want to talk about it and you can see that he is good at avoiding the subject (either by shrugging, silence or by simply saying “dunno”).
The same situation occurs two days later and this time in English. In the subsequent conversation you notice that he’s using the same simple words to describe the same scenario. You ask him about English in his other school and he can’t remember what they studied.
You become more aware of the same really laboured conversation and perhaps a lack of trust – which is not what you normally get from your other students.
You set him up with some private study in your office and he doesn’t do it, he messes around and you think to yourself that he may well have some form of SEN. You email the SENCO, but while SEN assessments are in process, his behaviours repeat and spiral out of control quite rapidly. Soon, your hopes for that fresh start have vanished.

This, like so many challenges you deal with, is not an easy case to simply “fix”. It’s tough stuff and you are on the front-line bearing witness to a scenario that is spiralling out of control as you watch – like a slow motion car crash.

Now, don’t let the “mid-phase” or even the “managed move” aspect of this case distract you too much. These of course are really important issues to unpack but that is for another article. Carefully sidestepping those for the sake of brevity, I want to hone in on one key point – this student seems to present with a difficulty in understanding.

Our prisons are full with inmates who had undiagnosed SEN and who in particular have speech, language and communication issues. There is a fuzzy boundary between the world of SEN and the world of the pastoral precisely because many pastoral issues are co-morbid with SEN.

In the case described above, it should be clear that the student has speech, language and communication issues and that addressing these might be the key to the fresh start we so desperately want to see.

There may be a number of signs that might tell us that a pupil has undiagnosed speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). These include:

  • They may leave out part of a word or syllable, e.g. “member” for “remember”.
  • They may abbreviate multisyllabic words, e.g. “recipicker” instead of “reciprocal”
  • They may use one sound (phoneme) in place of another, e.g. confusing k/t sounds.
  • They may speak too quickly.
  • They may hesitate during speech or make several attempts to form words.
  • Their language may be immature, e.g. “...and I went to the shop and then I spent my money and then I went home...”
  • They may use the wrong words for things or use a made-up word, e.g. “can-screwer” for tin-opener.
  • Their difficulties with the use of spoken language may also be evident in their written language (leading to further difficulties with literacy, particularly with spelling).

The above presentations lead to a secondary level of challenges, the ones that might be classified as pastoral issues in many schools:

  • Avoidance of work behaviours in the classroom.
  • Misunderstandings with peers.
  • Bullying (because they sound/speak different).
  • Boredom (they don’t feel like the lesson is for them).
  • Extensive silence and self-mutism.

And the net result of that set of problems, which pastoral leaders will recognise all too well, are of course: attendance problems, issues of self-esteem, and a serious threat to any sense of belonging in the classroom or in the mainstream school environment.

This is just a short article, but here are some quick ideas you can try (while working out how on earth to get a speech and language assessment when there seems to be very little service left in the entire country now and while considering other formal additional support for the student).

Fundamentally, building a relationship with the pupil is the absolute key to success. It is vital that they trust you and give you – and thus school – a chance. You will possibly be the first person to really try and connect with their problems, support them and prioritise understanding them above punishing them.

Put aside all ideas of usual behavioural consequences, as clearly these have been tried and have failed completely. As a pastoral leader you probably have some excellent skills in building relationships with challenging students, but this scenario can be particularly tough. So adhere to the following:

  • It is important to always give time to allow the pupil to finish what they are saying. Although it is tempting, never finish off what they are trying to say.
  • It may be necessary to admit that you have not understood everything they have said to you – ask them to help you understand.
  • Model language for the pupil. Ask them to repeat what they want to say. Then say it back to them “correctly” to clarify that you have understood.
  • Don’t correct their mistakes directly and definitely not in front of their peers.
  • Slow your own rate of speech and stay calm, as this will reduce the pressure on the pupil.
  • Maintain eye-contact when speaking and listening.

Based on your relationship, there is a chance for this student. You may be able to find out enough about what motivates him, what you can do to support him, and how you can provide a different school experience to what has gone before.

The most important thing is for you to share these strategies with his classroom teachers to enable them to develop a positive and trusting communication with him and support them in working out how to best adapt the classroom learning environment to meet his needs.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for SecEd on our website via


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