Could negative behaviour be a sign of a language disorder?

Could negative behaviour be a sign of a language disorder?

Ever taught a pupil who seemed to misbehave deliberately?

You know that a medical condition such as Attention Disorder Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) had been ruled out. Their family circumstances didn't raise any concerns.

But their behaviour affected your lessons and you didnít know why they behaved that way. 

It could be your pupil had a language processing disorder. 

(In fact, 1 in 10 children have speech and language difficulties.)

And these difficulties can affect the way they behave.

So why do problems with language affect behaviour?

Behaviour is a form of communication - and for some pupils it may be the only way they can tell you something is wrong.

We often say negative behaviours are Ďattention-seekingí - but we need to be thinking of negative behaviour as Ďattention-needingí.

Negative behaviour often masks communication difficulties. If the childís communication is impaired, their behaviour may be a way of explaining that they arenít coping. 

And research has shown that there is a link between a childís ability to process language and their frustration/negative behaviour. 

Letís have a look at what a language disorder is...

Language disorders often start in early childhood.

They're not a matter of intelligence. Many pupils who have a language disorder can be high achieving but struggle with their use and understanding of language. And some language disorders may occur as a result of a brain injury or illness.

Children may have either an expressive or receptive language disorder (or both). 

Expressive language is your ability to put your thoughts or feelings into words so you can communicate with others.  It's your ability to 'broadcast' information.

An expressive language disorder is often diagnosed at a very young age as the child will be late to start talking and may not use many words. They will have trouble getting their message across when they talk. They often struggle to put words together into sentences that make sense.

Receptive language is your ability to listen to the words other people are using and make sense of them.  It's your ability to 'receive' information.

Signs of a receptive language disorder may appear a little later.

Children will struggle to get the meaning of what others are saying. Because of this, they often respond in ways that donít make sense. They may have difficulties explaining their actions and expressing their feelings. 

Any of these sound familiar?

If they do, you should consider the possibility your challenging pupil might be struggling with using and understanding language.

Research has indicated that around 81% of children with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs have significant unidentified communication needs. 

And bear in mind it can be more difficult to identify children with communication difficulties than you might think - because they may 'mask' their difficulties by copying the body language and reactions of other children.

How might a child with language processing difficulties behave?

They may: 

  • Distract others.
  • Struggle to focus their attention, especially in reading and writing lessons, or when they need to listen for long periods of time.
  • Not follow the instructions you give them.
  • ĎAct upí rather than say they donít understand.
  • Find it difficult to complete any tasks that you set.

How it feels to be a pupil with language processing difficulties

Imagine being in a lesson where you donít know what was going on.

Youíve found it hard to listen to the teacher explaining something new.

The teacher has then given you an instruction that had three parts to it. You canít remember the first part let alone the third. All your friends have started doing their work but you honestly donít know what to do.

You could go and ask the teacher... but then youíd look Ďstupidí and your friends would laugh.

So youíve thrown a pencil, poked your friend and started singing a rude song. 

Your teacher comes over to speak to you. But now, because of your expressive language disorder, you canít explain why youíre behaving like this.

You canít find the words to express your feelings.

So you shout at your teacher and they shout back. 

Your negative behaviour has hidden the fact that you didnít understand the lesson.

Itís a cry for help - but the adults haven't heard it.

When the warning sings are missed

If we donít support pupils with language needs, they may :

  • Struggle to form friendships 
  • Be rejected by their peers and could be bullied, or be the bully 
  • Struggle to achieve academically 
  • Be more likely to be excluded
  • Not benefit from group interventions to support their behaviour needs

What can we do to help pupils with language difficulties? 

  • Speak to the SENCo in your school about your pupil having a possible language disorder Ė they may involve specialists such as speech and language therapists. 
  • Keep your sentences short and use gestures and pictures.
  • Reduce the questions you ask, emphasising important words.
  • Set your routine and use a visual timetable 
  • Demonstrate activities before you ask them to do them 

Key takeaways 

Many pupils with SEMH needs also have communication difficulties.

This could be an:

  1. Expressive language disorder
  2. Receptive language disorder

Children with language disorders may struggle to understand what people are saying to them and find it hard to express their thoughts and feelings. 

This can result in a child displaying behavioural difficulties.

Some pupils deliberately mask the problem, so they don't stand out or because they're worried about the reaction of the other students.

We can support these children by:

  • Simplifying our language
  • Slowing down our speech
  • Reducing the number of questions we use
  • Using picture cues alongside verbal instructions.

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