Child-led learning and speech and language intervention - an oxymoron?

Oh no, she's at it again! She's been to a conference and read another book and all of a sudden she's raving about something new - child-centred learning.

Well, yes and no. I am raving about child-centred learning but it's nothing new. It's just such a huge contrast to most nurseries that I visit (mostly school-based, local authority run) and it's not really my role, so I don't tend to talk about it much. Then I go and listen to Alistair Bryce-Clegg from talking at his fabulous conference back in November and it comes back to the forefront of my mind. I get all fired up again and more determined that the "little boys with behavioural problems" only have problems because the expectations placed on them at such a young age is completely developmentally inappropriate for their age.  Behaviour is communication. And do you know what those boys are telling us when they run away every time we ring our bell for them to come and sit on the carpet? (Adult-language warning; I'm on a rant.)

They are telling us "I am bored shitless of having to sit and wait for Mrs Jones to tell Amelia that, no it's not Wednesday today because that was yesterday so who can tell us what day it is today and then can you find it on the board and velcro it onto the wall. No not that one, the next one down, no the next one. Yes that's right. "

They're telling us "I don't really give a toss what Connor did at the weekend because I've got a lot of energy at the moment and I want to use it up by climbing to the top of the climbing frame and then jumping from the top."

They are also telling us "I don't really understand what is going on. All I hear is blah blah blah but what I do understand is that if I run off now, one of you lovely ladies is going to chase after me and I like playing a bit of chase. It's fun. Unlike sitting on a carpet and waiting for James to count up to twenty-seven."

So, I guess what I am really trying to say is, that in our settings, there will be children, about whom you have no concerns - they are chatty and sociable and already know the days of the week, so you don't need to torture the rest of the children by making them sit through their recital. Then there are children, about whom you have some concerns. Their attention and listening skills are not up with their peers and they have vulnerable language skills. Lastly there are those who still communicate by donking their peers over the head with a plastic hammer. People tend to use this pyramid, so I will too for simplicity.

The universal approach is that staff can change their own language to suit the individual needs of the children, in activities which the children have chosen themselves. It's an approach that works for all children, regardless of their language level.

The targeted approach is that children might need a little more support in their learning of new skills and this might be in small group or individual settings for small lengths of time. However, here's the thing. You don't actually have to take the child away from that really interesting thing that they were doing to extend their language. You have in your mind what their next goal is and you take that learning to them. Or if you do run small groups (which I do and are received well by the children) the children will still play a big part in leading the activities in that group. You then scaffold the targeted language or behaviour (e.g. good listening) into that activity.

And the spikey bit at the top? That's for when you realise that you really would appreciate more specialist assessment and support in the form of a request for assistance from speech and language therapy. And good luck with that if you are waiting for the NHS. Because although the NHS has absolutely fantastic, dedicated SLTs (of which I am one!) for some reason, it has been decided that we are a good way of cutting the budget and if an SLT leaves then the post gets frozen. SLT is simply not as sexy in terms of journalism and NHS stories as A and E waiting lists and flu epidemics.

So, I thought for 2018, it would be a good theme to go through the three tiers and link it in to child-centred learning with regards to language development and behaviour. I've nearly finished reading "When the Adults Change, Everything Changes - Seismic Shifts in School Behaviour" By Paul Dix. Although it is geared up for older pupils, I found myself nodding like one of those dashboard doggy things. Basically the message is the same if you are an early years practitioner, a teacher or a parent. If you would like to see a change in a child's behaviour, you have to change what you are doing.

I'd really like to see 2018 being a year when we all shift to evidence-based practice and all the evidence is there pointing to child-led learning. I'm going to put it out there that I am a huge fan of child-led learning with a *however* caveat. I do recognise that there are some children that require a more targeted approach - when I run my targeted attention and listening groups in nurseries though, I usually get every other non-targeted child running up and asking if they can come with me, because targeted doesn't have to mean boring. I love running my groups and the kids love coming to them too. But my message is this: A huge percentage of supporting behaviour and communication is done by following what a child is interested in and adapting the learning there and then to their specific level of need. If we want to close the attainment gap, we need to seriously reconsider our practice. These tips would be a good starting point.

  • With every nursery activity (such as circle time) consider... is every child benefitting from this activity? Or is it the same chatty few that are participating every time? What changes could be made to ensure every child is included? This might mean smaller groups, shorter time in a circle or adapting your language and expectation according to their need.
  • Does every child start with a clean slate every day? Or does your staff use langauge such as "I hope we are going to have a better day than yesterday."
  • If a child is "misbehaving" (also known as 'has not received the memo of what your expectations are for the day.') was the activity chosen and led by them...or you?
  • If a child is "misbehaving," do they actually understand what is expected of them? Or do you need to support that understanding by using visuals, gestures or simplifying the instruction?
  • Do you sometimes need to keep in check your own emotions when interacting with some of your children - I love this mindfulness app "Head Space" if you'd like to gain control over your stress levels!

I'm really looking forward to meeting more early years practitioners in 2018. I will be attending all 3 Childcare Expos in London, Manchester and Coventry - I'll be presenting "Raising Attainment by Boosting Early Language" - I hope to meet you there! And here's to a calm, peaceful and communicative new year!

Catherine x



About Catherine Jackson

Catherine is a speech and language therapist who is sharing some of her experience with early years practitioners and parents, in the hope that more children with SLC needs can be supported earlier. To receive blogs straight into your inbox, along with free pdfs, sign up at