I joined Speech and Language Link at the beginning of January. This was a big move for me as I had previously worked exclusively for the NHS and had spent 12 years in the same team. Starting a new job is exciting, but it’s a lot of 'new' - new people, new systems, new programmes - on top of trying to make a good first impression and find my place in a well-established team.
I sat in on an online meeting for the first time when I was in my second week of the job. As the participants settled down, the chair of the meeting asked whether everyone had accessed the agenda. I hadn't, it was stored on a programme I hadn’t heard of. Was I supposed to have access to this programme? I had no idea. As I pondered over this, the meeting moved on. And I'd missed my window of opportunity to raise my hand and say I hadn't seen the agenda. Not a good start. An uncomfortable feeling of anxiety settled in my stomach.
I quickly messaged someone else in the meeting, someone I knew, and asked if she could forward me the agenda. She sent me a screenshot, which I opened and read through. Doing so pulled my attention away from the meeting and I only realised I'd tuned out when my name was mentioned. I'd been volunteered to do something, and I had no idea what. That uncomfortable anxiety shifted into mild panic as I tried to work out what the group had been talking about. In solving the first problem, I'd created a new one. Should I admit I hadn't been listening? Too late... the meeting had moved on again.
I spent the rest of the meeting trying to follow the conversation as the group discussed ongoing projects, staying in the background and hoping that no one asked me a question. In conclusion, not my finest hour and I left the meeting still holding that horrid feeling of anxiety and feeling a bit flat. I was still not sure what I volunteered for…
When I reflected on the experience after the meeting a young man came to mind. Let’s call him Tom. Tom was referred to the NHS Speech and Language Therapy service when he was in year 5. He had been known to the school SENCo because of his behaviour and had a diagnosis of dyslexia but had never been flagged for speech, language and communication needs. I didn’t have to work with Tom for very long to conclude that he had Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). Tom had a very good insight into the impact of his language difficulties. He talked about trying hard to listen when the teacher was talking but said his brain couldn’t keep up and he got lost. He said he didn’t understand all the words the teacher used, but it was embarrassing to keep asking so he’d just ask the person sitting next to him or try and copy their work. He talked about trying to do his work but giving up because he couldn't keep up. He’d developed some very effective strategies to stay off the teacher's radar - to blend in.
I feel like I got a little insight into Tom’s day-to-day life in that meeting. The confusion, the anxiety and the embarrassment that comes with not understanding and not wanting to stand out. The difference is that my situation is temporary – the job will not be new forever and I’ll learn the new vocabulary, programmes and systems. I’m sure we’ve all had a similar experience in a new job. It will get easier. For Tom, language and communication challenges will be lifelong.
So where am I going with this? Firstly, let's all take some time to reflect on what having DLD might feel like. Have you had a situation like my meeting where you’ve felt anxious, confused and embarrassed to admit you don’t understand? Imagine dealing with this feeling every day. It must be absolutely exhausting. Do you have a Tom in your class? If you do, what one thing could you do this week to make his life just a little bit easier? Have you ever asked your Tom what they think might help them? If you need some inspiration, have a look at the Classroom Resources section in Junior Language Link where you can find our High Quality Teaching Strategies for pupils with SLCN.
Secondly, let’s talk about universal screening. Tom should not have got all the way to year 5 before being flagged as having a communication difficulty. He's missed out on countless opportunities to access the right support and it's hugely impacted on his self-esteem and self-worth.
If you’re wondering whether you have the time to use the Junior Language Link online assessment with the whole year group in year 3/P4 or, if it's really worth doing, think of Tom.
Please don’t let your Tom blend in.
Junior Language Link is our award-winning package used to identify and support children with mild to moderate SLCN and those new to English in Key Stage 2. The assessment will also identify any children who may have more severe language needs, so that these children can be considered for further investigations and diagnostic assessment with your local speech and language therapy team.