The language of communication

Language – a method of communication that virtually all of us have. Perhaps not always spoken, for some it may only be a look or a movement, but a ‘language’ nevertheless. Communication though, is not straightforward even if a) you are verbal and b) you are literate. Excuse me for not naming names, as names often escape me. Hopefully anyone reading this can fill them in themselves. I tend to remember subject matter far easier than I remember names and, at the end of the day, this is not an essay that will carry a mark towards some kind of qualification! (If it did, I would go look up the names…)

I was going to write about the two papers I read the other week, but got side tracked. The papers were; ‘Special units for young people on the autistic spectrum in mainstream schools: sites of normalisation, abnormalisation, inclusion, and exclusion’ by Holt, Lea and Bowlby (2012), and ‘Private knowledge, public face: Conceptions of children with SEBD by teachers in the UK – a case study’ by Armstrong and Hallett (2012). Each paper, of course carries multiple aspects of communication, it’s not just words on paper that will mean the same thing to everyone who is reading them. Some academic (see, names escape me) described how communication is open to interpretation, that there’s a space, a negotiation between what comes out of one mouth & goes into another’s ear and it’s those spaces we must be mindful of. The same goes for text, whoever reads this will negotiate their own meaning, which could be different from the message I thought I was sending.

Armstrong and Hallett’s paper resulted from the analysis of 150 5000-word written papers from educators in the UK (on post-graduate modules) who were directly and currently engaged with children & young people with the label of SEBD. From their analysis they identified four themes from the educator’s views of their students:

  1. Chronic predisposition to failure
  2. Unknown and unpredictable entities
  3. Capable of renormalisation
  4. Disabled by educational policy and practice

Learners were placed in the first category, with assumptive comments suggesting laziness and inadequate parenting. My fear is that such comments reflect encultured practices, where there is a language of ‘blame’ being laid at the child and/or their parent’s door without any further examination. Armstrong & Hallett agree that the primary focus was on pre-determined understanding of their learners. As I have said previously, this irks me. My 2nd degree was in Health & Social Care and labelling ‘types’ create stereotypes which can lead to prejudice & discrimination. To me, those coming from the 1st category are already 75% of the way to actively discriminating, if not 100%.

My sons’ primary school was very much like this. Although neither son had any form of anti-social behaviours, my youngest was actively discriminated against and yet the school was oblivious of this. At one point, the school decided that his requirement to check his blood glucose levels was a ‘work-avoidance tactic’, rather than a medical need. Presumably a child with asthma or epilepsy would similarly be ‘putting it on’?

The second category in Armstrong & Hallett’s opinion reflected a fear on the educator’s part. They reports that very few educators sought to understand any causes of the behaviours that were challenging, although one did discuss the trauma one student may have suffered as he’d arrived from a war zone. In general, it seems that educators were having a stab at what might have been reasons behind the behaviours without actually asking. Armstrong & Hallett reports that the educators feared how much these students may disrupt their class.

I’d argue that it goes further. Teachers spend considerable time & effort in planning (and marking) lessons for their students & having them disrupted can feel like a personal attack rather than any other reason. Unwittingly, their body language is going to move from relaxed to tense. I had a conversation some time ago with eldest’s teacher (Yr 6), a student had issues & was not in this day. She openly stated how much better the atmosphere was without him, that she was not having to stand on eggshells waiting for an outburst. The classroom was quite small & she was easily overheard by other students – so her body language when he was about was arguably ‘uninviting’ and she communicated to the class that the lad wasn’t welcome. (Even worse from my advocate viewpoint, the lad was on one of very many unlawful exclusions, he was regularly sent home after lunch, not on a termly basis, but weekly….)

There is, of course, other possible fears on the educator’s part, e.g. safeguarding & hearing about horrors from war-zone fleeing immigrants. We are not taught how to handle the emotional aspects of such things.

Those the bulk of educators in category 3 made value judgements about what students needed in order to conform to expected norms, based on personal opinions rather than factual knowledge. Category 4 educators were either confessional, reflective or oppositional to national policies – the policies made me do it m’lord.

I think that quite clearly, communication is going awry in so many different ways and the students are at the mercy of a whole-school ethos and/or individual teacher attitude. I am always of the opinion of – if you want to know, ask. Ok, not all students are going to communicate well but there are means of getting to the bottom of a lot of behaviours. Can the student hear in noise? Can they read text? Can they understand you?? What if you keep walking round the class but they need to see your lips move? What if you’re using words they don’t understand? What if text keeps moving around the page? Many of these things could be ameliorated quite simply. It would be interesting to know how many ‘disruptive’ students would not end up being labelled SEBD if small changes to classroom practices are made.

I will quickly mention Holt et al’s paper as in many ways, it leads on from the above. They examined the experiences of children with ASD who were in special units. I was disappointed by the paper & didn’t really realise why until I referenced it – it comes from a journal named Environment and Planning and the authors were all in a Department of Geography, so the paper wasn’t from an educational perspective. I think that’s why it missed so many points for me. They do make some very good points about how language, communications and environment change within the negotiated space of the unit. However, if I go back to the unnamed person from earlier, who said that communication is negotiated in the space between the speaker & listener, it is not the environment that is making the changes, but the language used within it. This language of negotiation could (and perhaps should) be available within a mainstream classroom. Holt et al describe the open doorway into the ASD unit as a glimpse of what was behind. They stated ‘for the majority of students of the school, the unit is terra incognita, the void outside, like that beyond the city walls to which lepers were cast’ (p2201). While they considered that leaving the door ajar was suggestive of an invite in, other students rarely ventured across the threshold.

In my opinion, a door with ASD emblazoned across it is not going to invite others in. My school (ok, so I left 3 decades ago) was a Grammar school of 3 forms per year, very few students if any required ‘special’ classes of any description. Speaking to others, going to ‘remedial class’ was not something to advertise & students were assigned unpleasant names. Clearly defining a space for ‘othering’ is something that jars with me.

Anyway, if you want to read an ‘outsiders’ view of ASD units, and inspect the type of language used, the paper is possibly quite informative. If you want the language to be of ‘learning’, then give it a miss.

Sorry if you got this far & are about to fall asleep….. Maybe my communication needs to be worked on more, but these ramblings are my collection of thoughts that may, someday, be refined and regurgitated as some kind of paper of my own.

References are available from my previous post.


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