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Managing difficult conversations with about SLCN

by | Feb 24, 2024

Talking about speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) is a sensitive issue. No parent wants to hear that their child might be having difficulties in their learning or their development and that we aren’t able to predict the long-term prognosis for a child will often be particularly challenging to hear. But despite this, it is really important that we tackle these difficult conversations head-on – it’s the crucial first step towards implementing the appropriate support and setting the child on the path towards reaching their best potential.

I’ll be sharing with you my advice for navigating tricky conversations with parents so that you can put your best foot forward and think about how to approach and prepare for a conversation with parents.

It’s important to consider the parents’ perspective right from the outset. It’s very easy for parents to feel like they’re being ‘blamed’ for their child’s difficulties, and it’s difficult to balance the conversation so as not to cause a sense of panic, but also not minimise your concerns to the extent that the parent is left unaware of the potential impact of the child’s difficulties and unprepared for what might come next.

Bridging the perception gap

There can sometimes be a ‘perception gap’, whereby the parent(s) may have higher expectations of their child than you believe are reasonable, or they may find it difficult to accept the difficulties that you have noticed. As the professional in this relationship, it will be your job to try to resolve this gap, but it won’t necessarily disappear completely over the course of just one conversation. Don’t dismiss the parent(s) insights and opinions, even if they are not in line with your own. Be open to what the parent(s) have to say as well as sharing your own observations and insights, as the information that they have to share is equally as valid as your contributions.

Be on the same team

Parents of children who have a history of additional needs or difficulties will very often have heard a lot of negative feedback about their child and unsolicited advice, so try to avoid leading the conversation with a negative as this can taint the relationship from the outset and build a wall between you and the parent. First impressions do count, especially in this context. Talk to the parent(s) about their own perceptions about their child’s strengths and difficulties first of all so you can begin to establish a ‘common ground’. Both you and the parent(s) will benefit from starting off from a feeling of ‘being on the same team’.  Remember that, although you may have called the meeting, conversations are not a one-sided means of communicating information, so you need to make time and be prepared to listen to the other person as well as achieving your objectives. Try to see this as an opportunity for collaboration and keep an open mind.

The importance of an “action plan”

You can prepare for the meeting by putting together an ‘action plan’. Very often time is short when you’re meeting with parents, so it is helpful to note down what your key messages are so that the conversation remains on track. Remember that you can’t be expected to know all of the answers off the top of your head, too! As part of your ‘action plan’, consider making a note of any organisations or websites that might be useful so that you can signpost parents if they need further information. Rest assured that it’s better to say that you don’t know the answer to the question and that you can help find out the answer than it is to blag it.

It’s natural to feel apprehensive about these conversations ahead of time, but bear in mind that you’re doing the right thing by sharing your observations and raising any concerns you have – you’re advocating for the child’s best interests.

Should jargon be used?

Consider the language you’re using from the outset of your meeting, especially if parent doesn’t share the same vocabulary as you. Jargon words do have a place, because they help us to be precise about the child’s difficulties and they can empower parents to find out more about specific issues, but they can also alienate. The important thing is to be clear about what you’re saying. It can help to explain terminology right off the bat (and write things down for parents if you need to) as not everybody will feel confident to speak up and ask you to clarify or explain terms further.

Balance the conversation

In the same vein, try to avoid using words with negative connotations (e.g. “he’s behind his peers”) but at the same time ensure that your meaning is clear to avoid any misunderstandings. You could try saying “x is catching up with his peers” or “x is working to close the gap” instead. If you phrase your concerns as questions and refer back to specific examples you have noticed (e.g. “I have noticed… at school, have you seen that at home too?”), parents will feel more involved in the conversation because you have invited them to contribute, and you will gain a richer understanding of the child at the same time.

It’s important to ensure that the conversation remains balanced, rather than focussing on negatives and difficulties throughout. Talk about what is going well at school and the child’s strengths too. There is always something positive found and parents want to hear that you notice the good things and that their child is a valued member of the school community. Remember that the child’s strengths will be the building blocks for the progress that child is going to make.

Information, not misinformation

In any conversation about speech, language and communication (SLCN), I find it’s always helpful to have expected speech and/or language milestones to hand so that you can ground the conversation in evidence-based expectations. You can use the resources available on the Speech Link and Language Link packages – there are printable parent handouts to explain what Speech Link and Language Link are, what to expect from an initial appointment with a speech and language therapist, and charts explaining expected speech and language developmental milestones.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation out in the world, and well-meaning friends and family can sometimes share unhelpful stories which can cloud the conversation. Try to dispel common misconceptions and myths – this can take some practice but refer to the evidence using the expected developmental milestones to support your position. There may be a cousin somewhere who didn’t talk until they were 4 and then spoke in perfectly formed sentences right away, but you should feel confident to say that that’s a very unusual case. Professionals are in a great position to be able to confront negative stereotypes of children who have SLCN (children who are late to talk, or who are not yet using all of their speech sounds, are not ‘lazy’). Keep in mind that your interventions are not going to hurt a child – it’s really a matter of managing risk. What would happen if you put extra support in place that a child perhaps didn’t need? On the other hand, what might be the impact of not doing anything at all? The truth is often that we can’t predict which children will catch up without any intervention and which children won’t. Most parents would agree that early intervention and careful monitoring is the safer course of action.

How do we manage parents’ feelings, and our own?

If you’ve called a meeting because you have something to share with parents, it will be your responsibility to steer the conversation, and your job to involve parents as much as possible. It’s very easy for parents to feel powerless in a situation and like they have no voice and no control over what is happening. Strong home-school collaboration will have a significant positive impact on the success of your support, so consider that the child’s parents are an extension of your team. Be prepared to listen and try to find genuinely supportive ways to work together without making assumptions. You want parents to tell you if they feel that something is going to be difficult for them so that you can solve the problem together.

Talking about SLCN, SEN or indeed any difficulties facing a child can be an emotionally charged conversation for any parent. Sometimes upset and anger can be directed towards you, but this is rarely intended – it’s just a reaction in the heat of the moment. Try not to take things personally but be clear about your boundaries so that you can protect yourself in a professional and polite manner.

Ending the meeting

Finally, it’s important to ensure that the child’s needs are put in a realistic perspective. It helps to refer back to the functional impact that you see for the child and to keep a record of actions along the way so you can summarise at the end and make the meeting feel proactive. Parents should leave any conversation with a clear understanding of the issues, but hopefully feeling that there is something that can be done and knowing what their next steps are.

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