Sometimes, a parent will quietly ask their child’s class teacher or another parent if what they see in their child is ‘normal’. Other times, a teacher might ask their student’s previous teacher whether a particular conduct or difficulty is typical for that chid, or they might seek the advice of a more experienced colleague or specialist.
Over time, teachers will see many behaviour patterns in their students. Most, if not all, are normal. Few, if any, are peculiar to one child, or even to one condition. Speech and motor coordination are two issues that can be highlighted as concerns by parents and teachers. Delays in either (or both) may mean nothing beyond the individual’s unique developmental timeline, but they may be indicators of possible learning difficulties such as dyslexia, DCD/dyspraxia, Developmental Language Disorder, ADHD or autism.
In previous decades, when teachers were concerned about a young child’s progress, but they could not put their finger on what might be holding them back, they would almost routinely refer to the local speech and language therapy service. Stretched services and mean that this is no longer viable or appropriate, but there are many reasons why a referral for speech, language and communication needs (SCLN) assessment and support might be the right thing to consider. Bear in mind that speech delays can be a result of a hearing impairment – concerned parents should ask their doctor for a referral to audiology or and ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.
In speech, as with everything, children develop at different rates. For example one of the last phonemes that children learn to pronounce reliably is th -t he /θ/ sound. The expectation for this is from age five. Some children may pronounce the sound consistently in words by the the time they are four years old, and others may not master it until they are six years old. That gives a school year range from Nursery Year to Year 2, or four academic years, when the mispronunciation of that sound is within normal ranges. That does not mean that a referral is inappropriate if concerns are raised. If children are frustrated because they are unable to articulate a particular sound, or if they are unable to make themselves understood, or if parents are worried, a useful first step is to attend a local NHS Speech and Language drop-in clinic.
Often children will appear to stutter with excitement. This is quite normal. However, if this becomes more frequent and begins to impact on normal speech, seek the advice of a speech and language therapist. The British Stammering Association has a wealth of useful information on their website.
Sometimes, the way children put words together into sentences (syntax and grammar) can make them hard to understand. Again, it is part of natural development that children will put words together in different orders as they begin to discover the power of speech. Often they are learning and playing with language. Nevertheless, if speech patterns mean that children cannot be understood by unfamiliar adults or their peers, or if the speaker is distressed, professional advice should be sought.
It is not surprising that some children whose speech is delayed may also have delayed aural comprehension. The most obvious referral here will again be to audiology, but if hearing is within normal limits, this could instead indicate auditory processing disorder (APD), a language related condition such as developmental language disorder (DLD) or attentional difficulties (most commonly ADHD, but also seen in dyslexia, DCD/dyspraxia, autism and other neurological differences.)
Again, this varies hugely between individuals. Some children will sit or crawl early, others may develop focus and fine motor skills to enjoy simple craft activities ahead of their peers. Some children will love running, apparently aimlessly, or spinning until they fall over. Swings may be a delight or a terror, depending on each individual’s sensory appetite and balance (ENT again). It’s also worth checking whether vision has been tested recently – it’s called hand-eye coordination for a reason!
In countries where formal education starts later, there is little pressure to force short, chubby fingers around pencils to produce detailed work once considered the domain of a select few monks training to become scribes. In these countries, children focus instead on the types of activities that interest them, whether it is modelling with a range of malleable materials, cutting and sticking with no defined goal, sorting, threading and construction games and toys.
There is much discussion as to whether requiring children to master certain skills by a set time in a certain academic year is contributing to an increased need for occupation therapy or exacerbating children’s perceived deteriorating mental health.
I do not have the answers, but consider this: your parents and teachers – and by extension you – know when you are supposed to be able to to complete certain tasks independently (according to goals set and imposed by lawmakers with little knowledge of child development or pedagogy). The task in question is beyond your current capabilities, whether this is due to slow skills development or another, physiological reason. Part of our role as educators is to provide adequate support before difficulties begin to impact on self-esteem, whatever the reason.
Falling over in the playground? Tipping a chair? Dropping stationery? Chewing on pencils? Occasional incidence of any of these is all part of normal behaviour. The key to recognising when it is something more is noticing frequency, triggers and any resulting impact on friendships, health and academic performance.
As well as the better recognised motor coordination issues associated with DCD/dyspraxia, some of these behaviours may be related to sensory processing difficulties. Some students may avoid sensory experiences as they are overpowering, others may seek sensory experiences. Some may seek certain sensory feedback and avoid others, and some may vary between the two. Talk openly with parents, take advice from experienced colleagues and professionals, and do not be afraid to refer to Occupational Therapy.
Plan and carry out support using all of the resources and information at your disposal. Review support regularly, adjusting and adapting, reflecting on what has worked and what has not. Remember, some things will work quickly – a wobble cushion or writing slope may bring immediate results, but therapy or specialist teaching may take time to have a noticeable effect in whole class situations. Adjust support to incorporate specialist resources and advice when this comes – it may take months for an appointment, and longer still for an assessment report or resources to arrive in the classroom. You may at times feel angry or frustrated that things take so long, but your students do not need your sympathy, they need your positive action.
To close the series of recent posts related to executive function, it seemed sensible to share some of the texts that I have consulted when working with students to develop tailored support for executive function. The list is not exhaustive, and if you would like more information or suggestions for where to go next, please feel free to get in touch via the comments, contact page or sidebar .
Anyone who has visited a mainstream primary school classroom cannot have failed to notice the plethora of displays decorating the walls. Sometimes these expand to cover doors, windows and may even be suspended from the ceiling or pegged out overhead, washing-line style. Often these consist primarily of presentations of the children’s work, perhaps each pupil’s version of a particular activity, or a different noteworthy piece from every child. These adornments may boost young learners’ self-esteem, which is important to developing confidence in a learning environment, and teachers may, from time to time, use them to remind their pupils of previous accomplishments to encourage efforts on the task in hand.
Such adornments have their place, serving to acknowledge and celebrate pupils’ efforts and to showcase the learning that has been taking place for the benefit of carers and parents on open days and at pick-up or drop-off. Most children are only too delighted to point out their masterpieces with great pride. However, for some students, these colourful exhibits can serve as a distraction. For others, they might bring back almost painful memories of seemingly endless toil and disappointment. Teachers must keep these scenarios and others in mind when planning their displays to create a safe and enabling learning environment.
Other displays can be lost on adults as they tour these joyful looking spaces, but it would be surprising if the classroom did not also contain visual prompts, designed to ease the smooth running of the school day or to provide information and reminders on any number of subjects, from simple colours, shapes, letters and numbers to historical timelines, foreign languages and complex scientific formulae and data.
The further children progress through education, the more likely it is that wall displays will consist predominantly of such prompts rather than their own work. As they progress through school, they will probably find themselves in different, subject-specific learning spaces for each lesson, making the job of filtering out what is relevant to each lesson somewhat easier, though they may still occasionally be confused by posters related to topics not yet covered, which are nonetheless relevant to older students using the same space. Ironically, in this way we make the displays easier to access only after most of our learners have already – possibly independently – developed the skills to benefit from them. By contrast, an infant classroom may be decorated with multiple displays of past work, with information relevant to multiple current topics squeezed into the remaining available space. These are at best developing readers, yet we risk overloading them with visual stimuli.
Children’s attention and focus develops over time, being intimately linked with their evolving executive function (EF) skills. Although teachers have their learners’ interests at heart when planning and setting up displays, the learning prompts intended by the provision of e.g. a visual timetable can be inaccessible for younger pupils, especially for those with learning differences and EF challenges, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and autism. Classrooms can have excellent age-appropriate displays, with clear potential to enhance learning, but if the pupils do not benefit from referring to these displays, then they are simply ‘noise’ on the walls.
This does not mean that we should not make use of posters and other appropriate visual cues to support classroom or home learning. It does not mean that classrooms should become dull-looking spaces whose walls are bare. It means that displays should be selected for their suitability to the students, their learning needs and the lesson’s objectives. It also means that learners should be taught how to use the displays to support their own learning. It is not enough to simply put up a poster and assume that all children will instinctively know where to look and what to look for, let alone process the information in their schoolwork.
To go back to basics: if the youngest children are explicitly shown where the visual timetable is in their classroom (or individual, home or other learning space), if it becomes part of the everyday school (or home etc.) routine to refer to the images, to note which have passed, perhaps cover or remove the icons for activities that have been completed, then they will develop a better sense of how their day is progressing. Visual timetables can be bought, made or downloaded from the internet; I would recommend a whole school approach, where the same images are used throughout. The timetable itself can adapt to suit the age and development of each class, from large images and velcro to a daily or even eventually a weekly poster, so long as there is continuity and the timetable is referred to regularly enough for it to be part of every pupil’s working understanding of the classroom.
Visual prompts can be brilliant for supporting everything from letter-sound correspondence and number recognition to grammar rules and mathematical techniques. They can provide factual information and technical reminders for every subject. They can be anything from large, commercially produced or teacher- or student-made posters to personal cards. The important thing is to teach students how to use them. So, if you are teaching a creative writing point, or a mathematical rule, or a foreign language, or… (you get the point) incorporate the poster/prompt you are going to provide into your teaching. Refer to it explicitly and frequently. In a classroom where multiple subjects are taught, have topic-specific areas, possibly colour-coded. Start with the youngest children, but do not assume that the routines learnt in one academic year or subject will automatically be generalised to the next year or another curriculum area. The key is over-learning.
Do not worry that this will hold back your most independent pupils. If you are using the prompt to teach a new point, they are still getting fresh input. They may not need to refer to the prompts after you have introduced them. Others will gain greater independence through confidence and familiarity with using the prompts. This will allow more time to be spent consolidating the points and reinforcing the use of prompts with those who still need support. Judicious inclusion of prompts in homework can also help.
Some learners who struggle with visual processing may need more support and other opportunities to consolidate learning. Look out for that in another post.
This article is based on training presentations for schools and parents. Please feel free to contact me for more information.
Graham, S. Harris, K. and Olinghouse, N (2007) ‘Addressing Executive Function Problems in Writing: An Example from the Self-Regulated Strategy Development Model’, in Meltzer, L. (ed.) Executive Function in Education – From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 216-236
Johnson, J. and Reid, R. (2011) ‘Overcoming Executive Function Deficits with Students with ADHD’ Theory into Practice, 50 (1) pp. 61-67 [Online]. (Accessed: 22 January 2016)
Kaufman, C. (2010) Executive Function in the Classroom: Practical Strategies for Improving Performance and Enhancing Skills for All Students. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Meltzer, L., Pollica, L. and Barzillai, M. ‘Executive Function in the Classrooms: Embedding Strategy Instruction into Daily Teaching Practices’, in Meltzer, L. (ed.) Executive Function in Education – From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 165-193
West Gaskins, I. and Pressley, M. (2007) ‘Teaching Metacognitive Strategies that Address Executive Function Processes within a Schoolwide Curriculum’ in Meltzer, L. (ed.) Executive Function in Education – From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 261-286
Executive functions (Explained in more detail here: EF – an introduction) develop from early childhood and are seen as key predictors of academic outcome and life chances in the modern world. I discussed how EF difficulties might present or be supported in the classroom in EF and Learning – Classroom Survival.
Some students with underdeveloped EF find the demands of school overwhelming from the very start, whereas for others, classroom routines, resources and support can be a benefit. In both cases, homework is likely to pose a challenge, particularly as they grow older, since such independent tasks place significant burden on EF.
When a child or young person has underdeveloped EF they
Sometimes classroom teachers or students’ parents express their frustration at the time or effort it seems to take a learner to complete a task the adult feels should be within their reach. When that happens, I ask them to try this activity, which was once demonstrated to me by an OT. Try it for yourself: Read more
Executive function (EF) difficulties commonly co-occur with other learning differences and specific learning difficulties, and they can pose life-long challenges. It’s important for those affected, their families, educators and employers to understand how EF impacts everyday functioning and what can be done to support this. For more on EF difficulties see EF – an Introduction.
Many of the challenges faced (and sometimes posed) in school and learning situations by students with EF difficulties are similar or identical to those experienced by their neurotypical peers. This is one of the reasons why teachers and parents can easily miss the signs that there is a support need. Unfortunately, all too often, the behaviours that actually signs of EF difficulties are labelled as immature, impulsive or even plain ‘naughty’.
The chances are that unless you have (or a family member has) a diagnosis detailing executive function difficulties, or you are an experienced clinical practitioner, assessor or special needs educator, you may not have heard of executive function (EF) at all. As part of a research project in the summer of 2016, I conducted an online survey of teachers to gauge their knowledge and understanding of a range of learning needs: executive function difficulty was the least well known by the 170 respondents. Research shows that students with specific learning difficulties are likely to have executive function challenges. Based on published prevalence figures it is statistically very probable that every mainstream class will include a number of pupils with executive function difficulties.