Limited vocabulary could be a hidden issue behind a child’s challenging behaviour

Sue White
Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Poor language development should be a consideration when looking at potential triggers for negative behaviour in children.

Sue White is a former teacher, SENDCo, local government advisor on education and co-author of Walking the talk: A vocabulary recovery plan for primary schools. Picture: The Influencer Crowd PR
Sue White is a former teacher, SENDCo, local government advisor on education and co-author of Walking the talk: A vocabulary recovery plan for primary schools. Picture: The Influencer Crowd PR

The damaging impact of trauma and neglect on a child’s mental health and wellbeing can manifest itself in many different ways, including disruption in school or refusal to engage with the very team of professionals working to improve their life chances.

If you are supporting a child who knocks over chairs or lashes out when they are angry or upset, things can soon escalate putting the safety of all concerned at risk.

Knowing why the child is misbehaving informs decisions about what action is needed. But the situation is often open to misinterpretation.

A growing number of children struggle to process vocabulary or may have a far more limited bank of words to draw from than their peers –1.5 million according to the communication charity ICAN.

Research suggests that 20 per cent of youth offenders have complex speech and language needs too, underlining the importance of effective early intervention.

The challenge is that when words are spoken, they disappear. Children with limited vocabulary can therefore become frustrated when they are unable to process what’s being said to them. Frustration can then spiral into angry outbursts. 

Restricted vocabulary may not be the root cause of a child’s challenging behaviour, but it could certainly be a contributing factor. 

Children may need additional support to better engage with the professionals they come into contact with. Visual aids can help to provide the structure and reassurance a child might need to navigate their way through a new or unsettling situation and help them to manage their emotions, whether or not they have limited vocabulary.

Using symbols as visual prompts helps children to focus on the key information you are trying to get across. So, you might use a symbol of an ear to indicate when the child should listen and a mouth to let them know when to speak as you are talking to them.

Here are two examples of how symbols can help support children and young people: 

  • Provide structure

Creating a timetable for a meeting or event that includes symbols for each stage in the process helps children to easily see what is happening now and what is coming up next. A symbol of two people talking could indicate a discussion with an education psychologist and a dinner plate could illustrate a lunch break. 

Taking a visual approach eliminates the pressure on children to interpret written text quickly. They can be more self-sufficient and the anxiety or confusion some children experience when they are unsure of what they are supposed to be doing and when is reduced.

  • Encourage expression of emotions

A child who is feeling angry or frustrated is unlikely to be able to participate fully in the decisions being made for their future. Symbolic emotion charts which include facial expressions are a simple way to help children manage these feelings when they are unable to vocalise them.

So, if a child’s carer has been admitted to hospital unexpectedly and they are upset or frightened, they can point to the relevant symbol on the emotion chart, providing the opportunity for their teacher or social worker to open up discussion and help.

Visual charts can be created to help children learn self-calming techniques too, with symbols to encourage deep breathing or counting to ten when they are stressed or anxious.  

The use of symbols will automatically make these resources more accessible for children with limited vocabulary as the relaxation activities are displayed in a very visual way. 

The Education Endowment Foundation has suggested an increased number of four- and five-year-olds are needing extra help with vocabulary and language compared to previous years.

This highlights the growing need to look at the behaviour of children and young people from a different perspective and help them communicate clearly and confidently with the adults supporting them.

Sue White is a former teacher, SENDCo, local government advisor on education and co-author of Walking the talk: A vocabulary recovery plan for primary schools. In her role as senior educational specialist at Widgit, she advises schools on using symbols to improve learning outcomes. 

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