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Children with speech, language and communication needs during the festive period

"A spiky sparkly threat waiting at the end of each year, with a sinister Santa who knows what you’ve done…"

I have just been reading an article that described Christmas this way. It's a quote from a teenager with autism and is a useful reminder before we deck the halls and put on the festive jumpers that this time of year may not be as exciting for everyone. I'll be looking at how to support children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) during the festive period. Thinking about the quote above there are several aspects that relate to language and communication:

Taking things literally: 'Sinister Santa who knows what you've done'

Children with SLCN may struggle with developing imaginative role play. The fairy tale of a person who delivers presents may become more of a threat than an excitement. Especially, as we say they aren't real and then they appear in the flesh. He also knows whether you've 'been naughty or nice' and some children may take this literally that the fictional character knows everything they have done. This may be upsetting and anxiety provoking for some children.  

Understanding what's happening

Children with SLCN may need help to understand that something different is taking place and that this is linked to the festive season. Some children may struggle with the change because they don't understand what is happening. For these children introducing changes to routine slowly and with as much warning as possible can help. You may also find that having visual support can help children to understand what the changes are, why they're happening and to anticipate what's going to happen. 

Coping when things change

The sight of an unknown man in a red costume with a big beard may be enough for children to remember all the talk of 'stranger danger'. Again, preparing children for what's going to happen may help them to anticipate and accept this. If you can talk to them about their expectations and lay out some information about what will happen, this can support a child greatly.

Understanding what's being said - learning new words

Certain events often have specific vocabulary (e.g. Christmas carols, reindeers). Children with SLCN may not know this vocabulary and so won’t understand what people are talking about or what's happening. Creating a clear display in your setting and routinely discussing the new vocabulary can put a child's mind at ease.

Sensory overload - 'a spiky sparkly threat'

While the festivities are an exciting time the sparkle and the flashing lights can be too much if children have any sensory needs. These can be related to sound, sight, touch, taste. There may also be certain textures they are happy to touch and others that children want to avoid, so it's worth bearing these things in mind. These can be completely unique to individual children. I was once working with 3 children who all had different preferences about touch - one couldn't touch balloons without wanting to hide, but could touch tinsel; the other two couldn't bring themselves to touch tinsel. 

Reflecting on practice:

Have you got a calm and festive free zone children can go to if they need some down time or to regulate themselves? You might want to decide where this is and what it is with the children - what would they like? What would help them feel like it's a happy place? 
Planning - how soon do you plunge into festive activities? Is it possible to keep a balance of activities if children need time to understand what's happening? 

Involving children in the changes

If you involve children in the decorations or any party preparations they are more likely to understand and anticipate what's happening rather than if things change overnight. 
How can you involve children in making decorations and changing your environment?
How can you support children's understanding of words they may not know?
Think about any words that may be new and unfamiliar to children; you can then plan opportunities for them to have concrete experiences of these. Find out more here. Working with parents - how can your share planning and ideas for supporting children to get the most out of this time of year?

About the author

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents.  Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant.

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