Sometimes, a parent will quietly ask their child’s class teacher or another parent if what they see in their child is ‘normal’. Other times, a teacher might ask their student’s previous teacher whether a particular conduct or difficulty is typical for that chid, or they might seek the advice of a more experienced colleague or specialist.
Over time, teachers will see many behaviour patterns in their students. Most, if not all, are normal. Few, if any, are peculiar to one child, or even to one condition. Speech and motor coordination are two issues that can be highlighted as concerns by parents and teachers. Delays in either (or both) may mean nothing beyond the individual’s unique developmental timeline, but they may be indicators of possible learning difficulties such as dyslexia, DCD/dyspraxia, Developmental Language Disorder, ADHD or autism.
In previous decades, when teachers were concerned about a young child’s progress, but they could not put their finger on what might be holding them back, they would almost routinely refer to the local speech and language therapy service. Stretched services and mean that this is no longer viable or appropriate, but there are many reasons why a referral for speech, language and communication needs (SCLN) assessment and support might be the right thing to consider. Bear in mind that speech delays can be a result of a hearing impairment – concerned parents should ask their doctor for a referral to audiology or and ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.
In speech, as with everything, children develop at different rates. For example one of the last phonemes that children learn to pronounce reliably is th -t he /θ/ sound. The expectation for this is from age five. Some children may pronounce the sound consistently in words by the the time they are four years old, and others may not master it until they are six years old. That gives a school year range from Nursery Year to Year 2, or four academic years, when the mispronunciation of that sound is within normal ranges. That does not mean that a referral is inappropriate if concerns are raised. If children are frustrated because they are unable to articulate a particular sound, or if they are unable to make themselves understood, or if parents are worried, a useful first step is to attend a local NHS Speech and Language drop-in clinic.
Often children will appear to stutter with excitement. This is quite normal. However, if this becomes more frequent and begins to impact on normal speech, seek the advice of a speech and language therapist. The British Stammering Association has a wealth of useful information on their website.
Sometimes, the way children put words together into sentences (syntax and grammar) can make them hard to understand. Again, it is part of natural development that children will put words together in different orders as they begin to discover the power of speech. Often they are learning and playing with language. Nevertheless, if speech patterns mean that children cannot be understood by unfamiliar adults or their peers, or if the speaker is distressed, professional advice should be sought.
It is not surprising that some children whose speech is delayed may also have delayed aural comprehension. The most obvious referral here will again be to audiology, but if hearing is within normal limits, this could instead indicate auditory processing disorder (APD), a language related condition such as developmental language disorder (DLD) or attentional difficulties (most commonly ADHD, but also seen in dyslexia, DCD/dyspraxia, autism and other neurological differences.)
Again, this varies hugely between individuals. Some children will sit or crawl early, others may develop focus and fine motor skills to enjoy simple craft activities ahead of their peers. Some children will love running, apparently aimlessly, or spinning until they fall over. Swings may be a delight or a terror, depending on each individual’s sensory appetite and balance (ENT again). It’s also worth checking whether vision has been tested recently – it’s called hand-eye coordination for a reason!
In countries where formal education starts later, there is little pressure to force short, chubby fingers around pencils to produce detailed work once considered the domain of a select few monks training to become scribes. In these countries, children focus instead on the types of activities that interest them, whether it is modelling with a range of malleable materials, cutting and sticking with no defined goal, sorting, threading and construction games and toys.
There is much discussion as to whether requiring children to master certain skills by a set time in a certain academic year is contributing to an increased need for occupation therapy or exacerbating children’s perceived deteriorating mental health.
I do not have the answers, but consider this: your parents and teachers – and by extension you – know when you are supposed to be able to to complete certain tasks independently (according to goals set and imposed by lawmakers with little knowledge of child development or pedagogy). The task in question is beyond your current capabilities, whether this is due to slow skills development or another, physiological reason. Part of our role as educators is to provide adequate support before difficulties begin to impact on self-esteem, whatever the reason.
Falling over in the playground? Tipping a chair? Dropping stationery? Chewing on pencils? Occasional incidence of any of these is all part of normal behaviour. The key to recognising when it is something more is noticing frequency, triggers and any resulting impact on friendships, health and academic performance.
As well as the better recognised motor coordination issues associated with DCD/dyspraxia, some of these behaviours may be related to sensory processing difficulties. Some students may avoid sensory experiences as they are overpowering, others may seek sensory experiences. Some may seek certain sensory feedback and avoid others, and some may vary between the two. Talk openly with parents, take advice from experienced colleagues and professionals, and do not be afraid to refer to Occupational Therapy.
Plan and carry out support using all of the resources and information at your disposal. Review support regularly, adjusting and adapting, reflecting on what has worked and what has not. Remember, some things will work quickly – a wobble cushion or writing slope may bring immediate results, but therapy or specialist teaching may take time to have a noticeable effect in whole class situations. Adjust support to incorporate specialist resources and advice when this comes – it may take months for an appointment, and longer still for an assessment report or resources to arrive in the classroom. You may at times feel angry or frustrated that things take so long, but your students do not need your sympathy, they need your positive action.