When poor behaviour is a cover


Students with language and literacy difficulties face huge barriers accessing the curriculum and often use poor behaviour as a strategy to cover up their problems. Speech and language therapist Jules Clarke advises.

In 2012, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers surveyed 814 UK teaching staff and found that 87 per cent of them were regularly forced to deal with poor attention. A lack of respect was reported by 85 per cent and 63 per cent suffered verbal abuse. 

Most schools have behaviour policies in place, some forward-thinking schools employ strategies like Geoff James’s solution-focused approach. So why then, are bad behaviours still on the rise?

As a speech and language therapist I frequently see pupils who use poor behaviour as a strategy to avoid staff and peers detecting their underlying difficulties with language and literacy.

A thorough language and literacy assessment (usually takes around 90 minutes) administered by an experienced speech and language therapist will identify any underlying difficulties that are affecting a pupil’s ability to learn across the curriculum.

Problems with working memory and auditory processing will have huge implications in all school subjects, perhaps with the exception of practical activities such as PE.

You will often see pupils with these type of difficulties watching their peers in an attempt to follow your instructions (they may not have been able to process all of your instructions quickly enough). 

They will be the students who appear to daydream, who will rarely finish their work in class. They will be the ones who get frustrated easily, fiddle and talk rather than get on with writing or reading. Often they are verbally able but may lack an extensive vocabulary and will express themselves with basic language.

The national curriculum is delivered almost exclusively in the verbal mode of communication. So the pupils with slow auditory processing speed are immediately disadvantaged.

Those who struggle with reading, writing and spelling (because of decoding issues and working memory for example) are equally disadvantaged as they constantly struggle through work they cannot fully decode or understand. In primary school these pupils often get extra help in the hope that they will catch up with the packed curriculum, which advances at a pace and waits for no teacher or pupil.

Twelve-year-old Joely, who was diagnosed with auditory processing disorder after her year 6 teacher noticed that she had difficulty following instructions, describes things from her point of view: “I was very upset with the diagnosis because there is no cure and people often don’t believe I have a problem it can make things very difficult for me.

“Auditory processing disorder means that my ears hear sounds but my brain doesn’t always process them. The result is that I appear not to understand, but I can understand well if I have visual and other support.”

In her recent interview in the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists’ Bulletin magazine, she also described how she had lots of ear infections as a child and had to have grommets. Her speech was very slow to develop but fortunately, her mother is a speech and language therapist and they got her past that hurdle. 

She describes her strategy for learning spelling: “I spent hours learning spellings by memorising what they looked like on the page. This meant my phonics wasn’t very good and I struggled to spell and read. I used to say things like ‘I know you are talking, but I don’t know what you are saying’.”

For children with auditory processing difficulties, when teachers stand at the front of the class and talk for five to 10 minutes, it can be like listening to a radio with a poor signal, or in Joely’s words: “I hear things like a game of hangman, where you have to guess the word with only a few letters showing. It’s frustrating when I get it wrong and it upsets me more as I get older.”

For pupils with an undiagnosed auditory processing disorder, they have no idea what is happening to them or why. To make matters worse, social situations and noisy environments like classrooms make things much harder. Joely is one of the lucky ones; she has a mother who is a speech and language therapist and a teacher who had the time to address her issues. 

For some pupils, their parents perceive their difficulties as selective hearing or deliberate ignorance. I have even heard some people describe children who have auditory processing difficulties as “being away with the fairies”.

As Joely has already implied, secondary school is going to be a challenge, but at least they know the reason behind her difficulties and I am sure her mother will watch closely and be on hand every day. 

But for thousands of other pupils moving on to secondary school, the extra help will not be available. Some have not even discovered the cause of their difficulties and the prospect of the number of different teachers and subjects increasing dramatically must be daunting. 

Is this when pupils sink into low-level disruptive behaviours? Do they develop these behaviours to avoid the work they know they cannot do?

Schools need to determine what the underlying cause for the bad behaviour is. For pupils who are using behaviour for the completely different function of covering their inabilities, then the start point for their intervention is a thorough assessment of their language and literacy skills.

Speech and language therapists are often only associated with special schools or special education units. With a bachelor of sciences degree that takes four years to earn, they are armed with in-depth knowledge about the pathologies in language, literacy and human communication. 

In the UK at present, there are some 1,500 independent therapists working as part of the school team or who are employed directly by parents to address children’s speech, language and literacy difficulties.

The NHS still employs therapists who provide services to local schools but the numbers have dwindled to an all-time low over the past 10 years. The services to secondary schools have always been minimal, but now they are virtually extinct in some areas, except where pupils possess a statement of SEN.

Schools can contact their local NHS Children’s Speech and Language Department to enquire about services that may be available. Alternatively, schools can employ the services of an independent speech and language therapist via the Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Independent Practice. 

Therapists will assess pupils’ skills, provide a written report with recommendations and can also provide treatment plans with targets that can be used on individual education plans. They will also provide therapy as needed and some will train support assistants to carry out the work.

Intensive periods of input are best carried out once the pupil’s difficulties have been identified, to allow them to accelerate the skills they need for increased performance in the classroom.

  • Jules Clarke is a qualified speech and language therapist who has 16 years’ experience in providing direct therapy to children and training for professionals.

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