Link between Communication Difficulties and Behaviour
Author I CAN
This article describes some of the ways in which communication and behaviour are linked, the consequences for the young people it affects and ways in which we can help.
The Link between Communication and Behaviour
Are there Links between Speech Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) and Behavioural Emotional and Social Difficulties (BESD)?
The simple answer seems to be, yes there are. Research tells us that there is a strong link between behavioural, emotional and social difficulties and communication problems. As many as three quarters of young people who have BESD also have communication problems. Most worryingly possibly as many as 40% of children with BESD may have undetected communication problems.
Children who have communication difficulties may also develop problems with literacy and social interaction. Sometimes they have problems with their behaviour and they may be at risk of mental health problems. So if a child already has BESD, undetected communication problems can make their lives much more difficult. If no one has identified their communication problems, young people with BESD obviously won't get any help to develop their communication skills. They are also more likely to be misunderstood and seen as awkward, when really they are just trying to cope with not understanding what people say or being able to explain themselves.. Such young people may even be at risk of exclusion from school because of their behaviour although they actually have unmet special needs.
Just recognising that a young person has a communication problem can improve their behaviour. Partly this is because others can begin to understand the problems the young person faces. Also, when adults use language at the right level and allow for their difficulties with expressing themselves, their behaviour often improves. So it is important that we are on the look out for communication difficulties in young people with BESD. Some researchers think there should be routine screening of young people with BESD for communication difficulties.
It is not always easy to spot communication difficulties in young people with BESD because their behaviour draws the attention. Communication difficulties in secondary aged children may also be missed because adolescent communication disorder can seem like a behavioural problem. Some of the following ‘behaviours' could be seen as behaviour problems (or lead to them) but they can also be due to communication difficulties.
- Failure to understand or pay attention to the rules of conversation. So they might interrupt.
- Difficulty using different language for different situations. So they might seem rude or inappropriate.
- Poor or limited vocabulary. So they might swear or always answer in the same way.
- Difficulty asking for clarification. So they might not be able to do the work or to ask how to.
- Difficulty organising information. So they forget homework and might be late.
- Problems understanding idiom, jokes, sarcasm and slang. So they may be confused or aggressive when these are used.
If such communication problems are recognised then the young people involved have a chance to get help to develop their communication skills and behave in a more socially acceptable way.
There are many reasons why some children develop both communication and behavioural problems. “Responsive interactions” where an adult ‘tunes in' to what a child wants, thinks, feels and wants to say, help both language and emotional skills to develop. So anything which gets in the way of these kind of interactions can lead to communication and emotional/behavioural problems. Unfortunately, if a child already has communication or behavioural problems then responsive interactions can be difficult, so problems may continue or get worse.
Adults interacting with children can help them understand how they and others feel by labelling emotions as they happen. Similarly talking through difficult situations; what people thought, felt and did, helps children learn non aggressive ways of dealing with problems.
An assessment of a young person who may have SLCN as well as BESD should include discussions with those who know the child well, and observations of them in different situations. Formal assessments may be misleading as they can cause anxiety, but there are other ways to find out about a young person's language learning potential.
The focus of speech and language therapy with young people who also have BESD is often to teach ways to ‘say' what they need to, instead of acting out. They may also need help to develop their emotion vocabularies (words to describe how people feel) and to understand ‘what will happen next' in certain situations that they find stressful. When working with young people with complex problems, collaboration between all of those involved is important. No one has all the answers when a young person is facing communication difficulties and BESD.