“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

There has never been a better time to maximise opportunities to support children’s communication. SLCN is the most common type of primary need for pupils on SEN support (DfE, 2019). The number of children with identified SLCN rose by 6% between January 2018 and January 2019. At the same time, the Children’s Commissioner for England found a real-term reduction in spending on Speech and Language Therapy in 57% of areas (July 2019). Plainly, a model of support for children with SLCN that focuses solely on waiting for increasingly inaccessible specialist skills is not sustainable. Additionally, with increasing numbers requiring interventions, delivery becomes more difficult to achieve in practical terms.

Lastly, our understanding of SEN has (hopefully} evolved beyond an impairment-focussed mentality that dwells on ‘fixing’ the child. Neurodiversity models imply schools adapting to the wide range of strengths, needs and ways of functioning that children display, rather than adapting children to the ways we teach. As Alexander Den Heijer says, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

Making your setting more communication friendly can:

  • Embed high quality teaching and learning approaches that support all children’s communication
  • Include approaches that support your identified children with SLCN
  • Support the effectiveness of your Speech and Language Therapist

What do mean by a communication friendly environment? These are practices that optimise every part of your space and activities to support communication development, for all pupils.

Some areas to think about in making a more communication friendly environment are:

Physical environment

Are there quiet spaces that max1m1se opportunities for concentration and listening, and encourage 1:1 interaction and talking? For example, a common issue is open-plan spaces that encourage flitting and make it difficult to control noise. Do you carry out focussed interactions and interventions in quiet, less distracting spaces?
Is your space visually distracting? Do displays serve a purpose, and are they referred to explicitly to aid understanding? Are they at a level that children can see? Are focussed activities planned at times and in spaces that discourage interruptions from staff members crossing the space or setting up for the next activity?
Are visuals used actively and explicitly by adults in ways that encourage understanding and expressive language development?


Are one-to-one interactions given priority? Does every child have an opportunity to talk with an adult every day? Are you encouraging peer interactions? Do you model many forms of communication support to your children through the day? Do you max1m1se the use of routines to develop understanding and language use?

Knowledge and staff training

Do staff have good understanding of what typical communication looks like? Do staff know how to maximise their effectiveness in talking to children in ways that support communication, and using effective questioning to extend learning? Do you have a robust plan for staff training and maintaining skills year on year? Do staff understand their individual responsibility for children’s communication development?

Tips for Getting Started with improving your communication environment

Give safe spaces to reflect

Many of our everyday practices have evolved from personal preference and habit. One of the best things about developing a communication friendly environment is that it gives people the opportunity to reflect on how and why they do things. Often staff can identify many small positive changes they could make to their routines with minimal difficulty.

Start small

Staff are always amazed at the impact small changes make. Adapting even one interaction in one routine during the day can create noticeable change. When staff see this, it will help you to increase staff understanding and momentum.

Let people choose their own priorities

Sometimes we will need everybody to focus on making the same improvement, but equally each practitioner could choose one small strategy to try out in their own practice. This gives a sense of ownership.

Help people identify change

People often have high expectations for changes they are making. But therapists often measure change differently and do not expect huge improvements in functional communication in one go. How will your staff know when their change has been effective? It could be as simple as a child using a new word, joining in with an activity by gesturing, or staying another minute at a learning opportunity. Make sure you recognise and celebrate every small positive step forward.

For more information on Communication Friendly environments, I recommend The Communication Trust as a starting point.

Find the Key Speech and Language Therapy works directly with Herefordshire-based schools and families to unlock the potential of children with SLCN. It also offers online learning options for primary school staff.


Twitter: @FindTheKeySLT | Facebook: facebook.com/findthekeyslt

References: Children’s Commissioner (2019) We Need to Talk: Access to speech and language therapy

https://www.chlldrenscommlssloner.gov.uk/publlcatlon/we-need-to-talk/ – DfE (2019) Statistics: Special Educational needs (SEN) Accessed 29.11.2020


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