Behaviour problem? Or is it a language issue?


by Shelley Parkin – Speech and Language Therapist

All children (and adults) will have their ‘off’ days where their behaviour may be slightly out of character, fractious or downright obnoxious! This is normal, and is often linked to lack of sleep, hunger, over-stimulation, pain, receiving bad news or perhaps an argument with a friend - there can be all sorts of reasons.  

But some children can appear to be consistently ‘badly-behaved’. In some cases there is a known condition where behaviour is different in comparison to peers - children with learning difficulties, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, ADHD - to name just a few.  Sometimes, we just don’t have an obvious answer for unwanted behaviour and we can start to wonder if it is deliberate. It almost certainly isn’t.  

Behaviour is another form of communication. For some, it is the most effective means they have of communicating something is not right, and they are not coping with a situation. If their communication is impaired in some way, behaviour might be their best option at getting this message across. Humans are, in large part, social creatures. We want to conform, we want to get along, and we want to please others. If someone is not able to do this reasonably consistently, we must start to question why. 

Developmental Language Disorder, or DLD, is the term used to describe when children have persistent difficulty learning and using language. This condition is actually more common than autism and dyslexia yet is not nearly as well known. Sometimes children will have a language disorder which is associated with another biomedical condition, and in this case, the terminology used is ‘Language Disorder in association with X’ (where ‘X’ is the name of the condition).  

DLD can be thought of as a ‘hidden disability’, as it is not always immediately obvious something is wrong. Not all children with DLD realise why they are finding understanding and using language difficult, and those around the child also may not recognise the signs. Unfortunately, some children may label themselves as ‘stupid’ or perhaps try and mask their difficulties, staying under the radar as much as possible. It’s hugely important therefore, that parents and teachers can spot the signs so issues can be identified and the right support can be put in place. 

When communication is impaired, behaviour may be one of the first outward signs people notice. Disruption draws in more attention than the pupil that quietly gets on with their work. You might notice a pupil’s attention wandering, distracting others, not following directions, disruptive behaviour during particular lessons - especially those that rely on listening, reading and writing and have less of a practical element. Pupils that are struggling may not want to alert their teacher to the fact they are having difficulty. If most of the other children can do the work, they don’t want to stand out. They may prefer to be reprimanded for the behaviour than admit they do not understand the lesson. 

If there is no easily discernible reason why a child is demonstrating unwanted behaviours, please consider whether a language difficulty could be behind it. Difficulties with working memory mean it’s hard for children with DLD to hold verbal instructions in mind long enough to act on them. This may appear as if the child is deliberately not obeying instructions, but instead could be linked to a language disorder. Difficulty with language processing and comprehension will impact ability to generate spoken or written information, and to read with understanding. 

As well as behaviour issues, other red flags to watch out for include:  

  • having trouble remembering information  

  • requiring spoken information to be repeated multiple times 

  • frequently not being able to think of the right word at the right time (word-finding difficulties) 

  • having limited vocabulary  

  • not saying much, and using only short utterances 

  • mixing up the order of words or leaving the endings off verbs 

  • unable to talk about their experiences in a clear, sequenced way 

  • literacy difficulties 

  • having trouble keeping up with the social ‘banter’ of their classmates 

  • becoming ‘invisible’- a quiet child who does not actively engage in class discussion/activities and is struggling to produce the amount or level of work required 

If you spot some of these signs in a pupil and have concerns, consider whether an investigation into their language skills is warranted. A discussion between the class teacher, TA and SENCo is a good place to start, and you may wish to seek further information from parents. Your local Speech and Language Therapy team should be able to provide you with advice. The sooner DLD is identified, the sooner support can be implemented to improve outcomes for the child.