With summer winding down and fall on its way, most students will tell you with some measure of resignation that back-to-school means back to homework, back to tests and projects, and the end of fun days spent at the pool. All children must re-acclimate to sitting in the classroom and making time for homework, and a student who struggles academically in any area will likely have a harder time. But for students with speech/language challenges in particular, this back-to-school transition can bring more than just the typical re-adjustment to schoolwork.
We entrust our children’s schools with the lofty task of educating them and preparing them to be productive members of society. At the same time, school is generally the place where the most demands are put on children and the most is expected of them. In particular, with Ohio’s New Learning Standards (adopted in 2010) and a new standardized testing system (put in place for the first time for the 2014-2015 school year), schools and teachers are under more pressure to meet standards, which can translate into higher expectations in the classroom.
For a child with a language disorder, we need to be conscious of an added layer of demands. These students must handle not only reading and language schoolwork itself but a variety of other expectations that can be challenging:
• Listening for an extended period of time: During the summer, children don’t often have to attend to one speaker for more than a few minutes at a time, but at school they must attend to a teacher talking for a longer period. In general, when bombarded with multiple stimuli, we tend not to focus on the ones that are the most confusing to us and instead we pay attention to what is most clear. For a student with a language disorder, spoken language comprehension may be more challenging. The noise of the lawnmower outside, the feeling of a pencil rolling in his hand, and the pattern of light and shadows on the ceiling may all be easier to focus on than the instructor talking.
• Auditory processing: In the classroom, students have to not only maintain attention to the speaker, but to process everything that comes out of the teacher’s mouth, often quickly. Think about your own comprehension of a foreign language. If you are somewhat proficient but not a native speaker, how much mental energy goes into listening to and understanding a lecture given in that language? You can do it, but not without sustained complete attention and a lot of effort. This can be exhausting.
• Following directions: By the time students reach grade school, they are expected to be able to follow multi-step directions: “Put away your book, get your lunchbox, and line up at the door;” or “Take out your math books, finish the first two problems on page 14, and check your work with a partner.” Attention, language comprehension, and auditory processing are all required for students to successfully complete such instructions; if there is a breakdown anywhere in that process, the student may struggle with the directions. Especially in a busy classroom, if directions are given verbally and then everyone starts moving at once, the task can be complicated for students with a language disorder.
• Social communication: Some children with a language disorder struggle with social pragmatics, or the social rules of language (http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/Pragmatics/). There is no place more challenging for these students than the playground, the lunch room, and certain settings in the classroom or hallway. During the summer, the child more often has choices about who to socialize with and for how long, but at school the peer group and schedule is fairly fixed. Students must navigate the complex world of body language, facial expressions, emotions, and social language. This is an all-day demand that begins when the student gets on the bus and lasts until s/he returns home.
• Communicate with your child’s teacher(s): Even when a student has a documented language disorder, teachers may be thinking more about the impact on schoolwork and less about how it affects general classroom functioning. Touch base with your child’s teacher and discuss how tasks such as following verbal directions can be made more accessible to your child. (For example, maybe the teacher can do a visual check-in to be sure your child understood directions, or whenever possible try to write directions on the board as well for your student to refer back to in case she didn’t get them the first time.) Even if a classroom teacher says she cannot make certain accommodations, at least she will be aware of some of your child’s extra challenges.
• Give your child down-time: When your child first comes home from school, resist the attempt to bombard him with a million questions unless he seems to be in the mood to talk. He has been listening to and processing language all day long – let him unwind for a bit by listening to music, playing outside, etc. before putting language demands back on him.
• Check in with your child’s speech therapist or other service providers: Find out from their perspective how the child is functioning in school so far, and get tips on what you can do for carryover at home.
• Be aware: Sometimes the biggest step is just recognizing the demands that your child has to deal with all day at school. This will help you to pinpoint any particular difficulties she may be having and to empathize with her struggles. Knowing that you are aware and supportive can make a big difference to your child.
These steps can help make the back-to-school transition easier for your child and set the stage for a successful school year.
Anna Fredman, M.S., CCC-SLP
Certified Speech Language Pathologist
Anna Fredman is a licensed, certified Speech Language Pathologist. She received her Master of Science in speech language pathology from the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA and previously worked at the Monarch Center for Autism. She currently sees school-aged children and has also worked with toddlers through students 21 years old. Anna has specialized in therapy for individuals on the autism spectrum, with a special interest in high-functioning students focusing on social pragmatics and young children learning basic communication and social skills. She also addresses reading, expressive language skills, written expression, and articulation with her students.