Supporting children and young people with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)

31 March 2021

Speech and Language Advisor, Amy Loxley, explores how we can support children with DLD

There’s currently lots of talk about supporting the emotional wellbeing and resilience of children and young people. Circumstances are everchanging and unpredictable, and pupils have had extensive time out of formal education. People are rightly concerned not only about the impact on academic attainment, but also on social and emotional wellbeing.

In the DfE guidance for schools about supporting pupils’ return to school, they note that Some pupils may be experiencing a variety of emotions in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, such as anxiety, stress or low mood. This may particularly be the case for vulnerable children” and teachers are advised to “consider using pastoral and extra-curricular activities to:

  • support the rebuilding of friendships and social engagement
  • address and equip pupils to respond to issues linked to coronavirus (COVID-19)
  • support pupils with approaches to improving their physical and mental wellbeing.”

Pupils with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) are arguably one of those more vulnerable groups. Their lifelong difficulties with understanding and/or using spoken language often have a significant impact on social and emotional wellbeing under even the best of times. There is research to suggest that children and young people with DLD process social information differently (Bakopoulou & Dockrell, 2016), and that they find it more difficult to recognise how other people are feeling (Griffiths et al, 2020). It has been suggested that support for those with DLD needs to focus on improving emotional awareness alongside language abilities (Samson et al, 2020).

Because these pupils are already socially and emotionally vulnerable, they may be impacted even more by the disruption of COVID-19. So, as well as considering what additional support pupils with DLD will need academically, we also need to think about what should be put in place to support their emotional wellbeing and mental health.

Whole School SEND have developed a handbook for schools on how to re-engage pupils in learning after a period of disruption or trauma. In the handbook, they propose a graduated response to recovery, with three levels of support:

  1. Universal support for ALL children, young people, staff and parents returning to schools
  2. Targeted support for broad groups of pupils with additional needs (for example, pupils with delayed language and DLD)
  3. Individual support for pupils with specific needs who require an individual response (for example, those pupils with DLD who have more severe and complex difficulties).

Some of universal ideas suggested by Whole School SEND to support all children and young people include:

  • Embedding social emotional learning within the curriculum
  • Using data to monitor all children’s wellbeing and identify those needing additional support
  • Making time for talking – about the pandemic, the lockdown, and the return to school – and their related feelings.

Children and young people with DLD are likely to need additional support, at least at the targeted level, and possibly also at an individual level for those who find the social and emotional impact of the transition and the pandemic particularly challenging. It is important to remember that because of their difficulties with language, they will find talking approaches difficult to access and will need adaptations to be made. We’ve given some of our suggestions below.

Firstly, prioritise building a relationship with a key adult who they can go to for help and to talk about how they are feeling. The adult will need to be aware of the child or young person’s speech, language and communication needs, and be trained in strategies and approaches they can use to support pupils with difficulties in this area.

Secondly, think about explicitly teaching emotions vocabulary to pupils with DLD to support them with talking about how they feel. Children and young people with DLD are less likely to pick up vocabulary incidentally and often require explicit teaching and more repetitions to learn new words.

Finally, think about what visual supports you can put in place to support pupils with DLD to talk about how they are feeling. There are loads of freely available resources online, including:

  • Do2Learn – a website with many visual resources including emotions pictures and an emotions “colour wheel”
  • Widgit’s “back to school teacher toolkit” has lots of visual resources relevant to the pandemic including an emotions board
  • Hereford and Worcestershire’s NHS children’s speech and language therapy website has some excellent resources specific to COVID-19 – including ideas for how to explain the pandemic to children and young people with DLD
  • Comic strip conversations are a great way of incorporating drawing when talking about a past or future incident, check out some of the free templates available online for primary pupils here and secondary pupils here.

It’s been a challenging year for all of us, and we’ll be seeing the impact of the pandemic for some time yet. So let’s think carefully about children and young people with DLD, who already find so many things hard in life, and how we can support their emotional wellbeing and resilience as well as their learning.

For more about DLD, don’t forget to check out our series of recorded webinars for school staff available here.


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