As we delve into the second half of this series of blogs on the whole-school application of the Principles of Nurture, this one looks at the fourth Principle: “Language is a vital means of communication”. This emphasises the importance of modelling self-expression, putting feelings into words rather than actions and being mindful of how our own messages are perceived by young people.
Communication is more than just language
There are longstanding conventions and legislation which promote the rights of young people to freely express their views and for their wishes to be taken into account. But the term “Language is a vital means of communication” lacks sensitivity to neurodiversity. Dr Rebecca Wood argues that we must move beyond the traditional focus on speech and language development. So how can we be respectful of children’s individual communication styles and preferences?
- Play creates a space for exploration and perspective-taking. Margot Sunderland has written extensively about the benefits of puppets, artwork, and sand play. Providing a choice of objects to place in a sandbox – representing people, animals, food, furniture, and buildings – allows us to notice what is present or absent, visible or hidden and what stays the same or changes. Drama, poetry, and ICT are also examples of activities which enable us to enter a young person’s world without the constraints and demands of speech.
- Drawing can be a powerful conduit for self-expression. In the “Drawing the Ideal Self” approach, Heather Moran explains how a young person can draw and describe the type of person they would not like to be and the person they would like to be. A rating scale connects the two pictures and helps to map development over time. Louise Bomber has spoken about the impact of toxic shame and how this can lead to young people having polarised views of themselves. She recommends working with them to create a “Parts Picture”. This can be a body map drawing or visual pattern which reflects various parts of the young person’s personality.
- Seeking to elicit young people’s constructs of the world is essential for understanding their views. Trainee Educational Psychologists Cleo Timney and Abi Cohman have developed the “Children’s Exploratory Drawings” resource. This is a set of easily recognisable scenes from the school environment which can be interpreted in many ways. In a similar vein, “Drawing the Ideal Safe School” by Dr Jane Williams can provide an insight into what would make the young person feel secure at home, in the classroom, and in the playground.
- Talking Mats can be used to explore views and set goals with young people, rather than for them. Different topics can be placed on a visual scale, according to how the young person feels. This can enable them to express what is going well, what isn’t going well and what is okay right now. Similarly, they can indicate which things they are coping well with, things they are not sure about and things which they would like more help with.
- There are lots of examples of cards which promote positive wellbeing. I personally like Dr Karen Treisman’s Therapeutic Treasure Deck of Strengths and Self-Esteem Cards. These include a vast range of versatile and hands-on activities which encourage reflection on personal qualities, happy memories, and supportive relationships. Co-creating a One Page Profile or Student Passport can ensure that a young person’s strengths, preferences, and needs are shared between different adults and environments.
- We need to be mindful of young people who struggle to verbally express how they feel and to match these feelings with bodily sensations. Visual supports such as feelings thermometers may not capture the nuanced reactions to a situation. Thanks to the excellent webinars provided by Emilio Lees and Elaine McGreevy (see @DivergentSLT and https://www.divergentperspectives.co.uk/), I’ve been introduced to Autism Level Up. Amy Laurent and Jacquelyn Fede have created an energy meter which can help autistic young people to consider their energy levels and what can be done to increase or decrease these levels to match a particular context.
How clear is our own language?
Not only do we need to embrace the diversity of communication methods used by young people, but we also must be mindful of our own language. Miscommunications can easily occur when we are unaware of how confusing and demanding our words can be. The onus is on us to adapt our language to make it as inclusive as possible and respectful of a variety of communication needs. Here are some key principles to keep in mind.
- Let’s start by acknowledging that there are times when language is not necessary. When a young person is highly stressed, we may contribute to and exacerbate this emotional state by speaking at length. We may speak at a faster or more intense rate if we are becoming stressed ourselves. On these occasions, it is best to say less or perhaps nothing at all.
- Ensure that you have the young person’s attention before you speak. Use their name or a familiar routine which signifies that you are about to convey some important information. Is your style of communication enthusiastic and motivating enough to capture their interest?
- Slow the pace of your speech and leave pauses. This can help the young person to process what you are saying. A good rule of thumb is to give around ten seconds of processing time, but some young people need more or less time.
- Concise language is more easily understood. Focus on saying one thing at a time and use the same words when you repeat an instruction. We can sometimes convey lots of messages when only one is an immediate priority. Start with the most important message first.
- Consider whether you are delivering your message as clearly as possible. It’s common for us to add so many unnecessary words in our day-to-day language, such as “basically”, “actually”, “kind of”, and “you know”. These words add more processing demands and can obscure the underlying message for neurodivergent communicators.
- Say what you mean and beware of metaphors, idioms and words or phrases which may be confusing. This is particularly relevant in post-primary education, where young people experience lots of subject-specific vocabulary for the first time. Teach new words in a clear context, with references to objects, pictures, categories, and real-life examples.
- Be specific when you use a time reference. If you say, “I’ll be back in a minute”, it can be anxiety-provoking for a young person if this period is really four minutes. Be as accurate as possible and use a visual support to help both of you realise when the time is up.
- It can be tempting to talk about what not to do but stick to describing exactly what to do in positive terms. The former can be better explored using a social story or comic strip conversation, where there can be a discussion about the thoughts and feelings elicited by different actions and what everyone can do to make a situation easier.
- We need to be mindful of young people who struggle to verbally express how they feel and to match these feelings with bodily sensations. Visual supports such as feelings thermometers may not capture the nuanced reactions to a situation. Thanks to the excellent webinars provded by Emilio Lees and Elain Emilio Lees and Elai Emilio Lees and Ela Emilio Lees and El Emilio Lees and E Emilio Lees and Emilio Lees and Emilio Lees an Emilio Lees a Emilio Lees Emilio Lees Emilio Lee Emilio Le Emilio L Emilio Emilio Emili Emil Emi Em E bility also allows the young person to maintain some control.
What nurturing messages do we want to convey?
I’ve written in previous blogs about communicating physical cues of safety and establishing environments which are predictable and regulating. But when we use language to build nurturing relationships, we need to choose words which are affirming, validating, and empathetic. The following “I am…” messages are just some of the experiences which we want young people to have in school. I’ve given some examples of words which can cultivate these experiences in our day-to-day interactions. Feel free to suggest some of your own!
I am safe
“You are safe with me”
“You belong with us”
“You can talk to me at any time”
“It’s okay to ask for help”
“Let’s look together at what’s happening today”
I am seen
“I’m wondering if…”
“It looks like you might be feeling worried…”
“I’ve noticed how you have lots of energy right now. How about we take a break?”
“You’re letting me know that this is too hard today”
“How were you feeling when it happened?”
I am accepted
“It’s okay to feel angry about…”
“I know that this is a big ask for you”
“I understand that you think this isn’t fair”
“Thank you for letting me know…”
“That was so hard, but I’m still here for you”
I am empowered
“What do you need from me?”
“Which choice do you prefer?”
“Take as much time as you need with this”
“How can I make this easier for you?”
“You can say no if you’re not ready”
I am remembered
“I haven’t forgotten about you”
“I’ll be back in the classroom after lunch, but I’ll be thinking of you while I’m away”
“When I saw that at the weekend, it reminded me of you”
“I missed you while you were gone”
“We are so happy to have you back in class”
References and Further Reading
Bomber, L.M. (2007). Inside I’m Hurting: Practical Strategies for Supporting Children With Attachment Difficulties In School. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Bomber, L.M. (2011). What about me? Inclusive strategies to support pupils with attachment difficulties make it through the school day. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Delaney, M. (2017). Attachment for Teachers. The essential guide for trainee teachers and NQTs. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Gaynor, Z., Alevizos, K. & Butler, J. (2020). Is that Clear? Effective communication in a neurodiverse world. Autism-inspired tips for allistic (non-autistic people). Acrobat Global.
Laurent, A. & Fede, J. (2019). The Energy Meter. https://autismlevelup.com/energy-meter/
Moran, H. (2020). Drawing the Ideal Self. A Personal Construct Psychology Technique to Explore Self-Esteem. https://www.drawingtheidealself.co.uk/
Sunderland, M. (2015). Conversations that Matter: Talking with Children and Teenagers in ways that help. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
Timney, C. J. & Cohman, A. R. (2020). Children's Exploratory Drawings. http://theceds.co.uk/
Treisman, K. (2021). A Therapeutic Treasure Deck of Strengths and Self-Esteem Cards. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Williams, J. (2020). Drawing the ideal Safe School: an optimistic approach to returning to school. https://edpsy.org.uk/blog/2020/drawing-the-ideal-safe-school-an-optimistic-approach-to-returning-to-school/
Wood, R. (2019). Inclusive Education for Autistic Children. Helping Children and Young People to Learn and Flourish in the Classroom. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.