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Speech Bubbles from a Parent's Perspective

Updated: Mar 15

As a mother to a currently pre-verbal, five-year-old child, there are moments in the day where I feel the silence – at the end of school there is no conversation about the day, the things that brought him joy, and the things that might have made him sad. Don’t get me wrong – there is joy. My son has taught me the delight in sharing a gaze, a giggle, and a cuddle. We always leave hand-in-hand, unless he wants to eat his crisps. Yet, I cannot deny there is an absence of knowledge or understanding about how he sees the world he’s living in, when I am not in it. I work hard to see things through his eyes and he has in his own little way, has made me a more empathetic person. I work differently because of him, and I think about the people in my groups more carefully because of him.

Over the last three years, I have sat in various versions of speech and language therapy. I have seen language pyramids and trees on PowerPoints that describe our aspirational journey to language. There have been elements of therapy that have fascinated me. There have also been things that wildly frustrate me – like the attention bucket. An activity where an adult asks a child to sit and tap the bucket. The adult opens it up for them and sometimes with them and they look at a toy. Then they put it back in. Then repeat. In a group session the children were not even allowed to touch the toys. Yet, I regularly receive reports citing how he managed to attend for 2-4 minutes and for a while this seemed to be the sole measure of how we would be judging his success – his ability to sit still when presented with a bucket of toys selected for him by someone he doesn’t really know.

Much later in our journey, I met a Sensory Occupational Therapist who assessed his profile and let me moan about the attention bucket. It turned out he had a low sensory register. He needed movement and exposure to tactile resources in order to wake his body up to engage with the world around him. In many ways, the attention bucket goes against how he best learns and my maternal, instinctive, realisation of this is exactly why I didn’t like it. He is judged on his ability to be still and attend, compliant perhaps, without thought to the movement his body needs. We tried a sensory bin. Toys that could have been in a bucket were now hidden in rice.

Suddenly, he could attend for 40 minutes or more, on a daily basis – which naturally gives a much better foundation for building the skills that will lead us towards language.

It also highlights the opportunity for a child’s success to be led by recognising their sensory strengths, rather than predetermined measures set by the adult. My experience with the Occupational Therapist taught me that there are other ways for my son to be visible in this world and be celebrated for his strengths rather than his perceived deficits. When we did this, we were overwhelmed by how quickly his interactions with the world have changed.

I now follow a lot of parents with SEN children on social media. A parent once posted that for her, she felt that inclusion was when you create space for all forms of communication to exist in one space. I couldn’t hit “like” hard enough. As my own experience has taught me the difference it can make. So, how wonderful would it be if we could collectively reorientate our gaze and see a way of living where all forms of communication are valid?

So, why am I sharing these thoughts about my experience with my child? (shared in part one). For me, delivering Speech Bubbles has become an opportunity to create a space where all forms of communication are valid.

When children arrive in a Speech Bubbles session you haven’t selected them to be there, their teacher has. As such, you have limited knowledge of the make-up of their communication profile, so you aren’t there to meet a hierarchy of need in the session. This allows you to work in the moment, holding the different needs in the space, and identifying the different communication profiles children exhibited in your group. The child that is super clever, but too shy to put their hand up, sits next to the child who is EAL, and they sit next to the child with ADHD.

However, all the children are there because they would benefit from small group work to build their communication skills. So, labels are put down and children can be the creative, complex, and developing minds that they are.

This works because Speech Bubbles recognises the components of communication as a core principle of guiding the work. When we consider communication in this way, without the pyramid or the tree, we can recognise the journey to effective language and communication isn’t necessarily linear. We are all made up of components of communication – with strengths in different areas, whatever labels we might have to hold outside the session. The children are united through play and have an opportunity to develop and celebrate their communication skills through participation and taking it in turns to author a story.

Speech Bubbles provides a framework for practitioners to adopt in their delivery. Yet, as a practitioner you choose games and activities that meet the needs of your children. Your choice of games can, much like the sensory bucket example, create an environment that supports all the children to feel safe and regulated before you ask them to make a sound. Making those choices can then also allow us to support their motor skills as they move their body through space, develop their attention, focus, listening skills, and so much more before words even come into it. This is one of the many reasons I think Speech Bubbles is so special. Children are learning through their whole body for 40 minutes over a 24-week period.

That is 24 weeks to give children time to learn that being able to communicate confidently doesn’t mean being the loudest person in the room. It can be positive body language, being good at listening, sharing ideas, taking turns, directing, working as a team, developing empathy, and so much more. Consequently, they see their own growth and success reflected back to them when the group acts out the story they take turns to author each week.

Every week a Speech Bubbles session is themed around a story one of the children has authored. Speech Bubbles champions linguistic justice and there is careful attention to scribing it exactly as the child delivered it. Consequently, the stories can jump around in grammar, tense, length and sometimes perceived logic, and, as tempting as it is to do, we don’t change this. Some told to me, in essence, were a list of actions. However, this commitment to author the story as the child told it honours their ideas and their intelligence. I have received reports about my son, stating that his babble was non-directional / purposeful. Maybe it’s my mother lion instincts kicking in, but to reduce his sounds to nothing misses the fact they can often be a sound of joy in the moment, or an acknowledgement I have come to pick him up from school. It reduces his intelligence. I think the process of collecting and sharing the children’s stories does the same thing – it honours the joy of the moment, of the idea and their intelligence at that moment in time. I actually remember being quite surprised one week that a jumping cucumber created so much joy and discussion for the whole group in the story square. Again, by working in this way, the children are building a shared commitment to each other – to tell each other’s stories and honour each other’s ideas, just as they are – so we create space for all voices to exist together.

Speech Bubbles is monitored and evaluated robustly – the pre and post assessments mark the changes in the children’s behaviour and attainment in school. However, there is not a defined benchmark of communication success that all children must hit or a grading system that measures success. Instead, Speech Bubbles ends as it begins and recognises the journey to effective communication isn’t linear and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. The super clever but too-shy-to-put-their-hand-up girl giggles in the session and puts her hand up more in class.

The boy who speaks English as an additional language and was an elected mute a year ago, has started to ask adults for help instead of staying silent. The child with ADHD has started to put their hand up and volunteer what happens next in a story and is writing better stories in class. These are the changes that will contribute to better attainment in education and improve their life chances.

One of my lasting memories of delivering Speech Bubbles was watching a child who did have an ASD diagnosis participate in the second term. He had been reluctant to join in for a while. For a few weeks, we wondered if Speech Bubbles was really for him or not. However, I started to appreciate that my offer to him was like giving him an attention bucket and he wanted a sensory bin. I realised he liked looking at his wristwatch and telling the time. So, I started to ask him to time the games we played. He went from being outside the activity to in the middle of it, calling out and counting down – alongside other children who were rolling around the floor in various incarnations of animals. The game hadn’t changed, I just better understood the way he enjoyed playing it. Once we start to work in this way, the opportunities for communication changed. As from that moment on, every time he went to leave, I would ask him to come back and time something – and he did. He was no longer “not participating” because of a perceived communication need. I had instead learnt the value in changing my own expectation of how games can be played – it never required me to be the keeper of time. Over the weeks he would call time, then another child would initiate a conversation with him, he’d agree to participate with them, and the group was playing, building skills and relationships that make new friendships flourish. A few weeks later I was walking through the corridor, and I heard his teacher calling out, getting him to time something in class which made me smile. The Teaching Assistant told me she’d seen him playing with more children in the playground and had attempted to comfort a child who was crying during lunchtime.

A Senior Leader in one school told me that one of the things that she liked about Speech Bubbles was the fact that it ran over a year. It wasn’t a quick programme that popped up and disappeared. It meant, as a school, by the second term of delivery, they were all starting to acknowledge and appreciate the difference in the children. It resonated with me. I delivered more Speech Bubbles sessions to groups of children in the last year than my son has received in Speech Therapy from the NHS in three years.

Over three years, most of the targets my son was given – he was always going to fail – because we were set top-heavy targets to keep us on the linear journey of development, yet no one ever assessed his sensory strengths or motor skills before they set them.

As a society, we have an estimated 1.9 million children struggling to communicate in our classrooms, I can’t help but wonder how many of them are struggling because they feel like they are sitting in front of an attention bucket, but they’d rather be putting their hands in a sensory bin? Or in the age of austerity, have had an assessment of their sensory needs or foundation skills overlooked. I have also been shocked by the EHCP process & how much of my child’s development now gets handed over to the school to be responsible for. In a packed curriculum, where is the room for working on the nuances in different styles of learning? Where is the time and attention for this, that won’t bring teachers to their knees? I will continue to deliver more Speech Bubbles sessions in a year than my son will receive in 1-1 therapy from the NHS. Having already been cut to the bone, they are now shaving the bone from NHS service provision. One therapist I met separately to my son’s sessions acknowledged that we are unfortunately living in the age of austerity therapy. My heavily cursed attention bucket becomes a one-size-fits-most kind of approach. I have seen other examples from parents, where they have been told to do it at home, after one session with only a worksheet to follow. There are gaping holes in our system that children are falling through. I know from my own experience, if I had been offered a sensory assessment two years ago, my child would be in a different place right now, because we would have all communicated with him differently to meet his preferences.

So, if we are to get serious about reducing that 1.9 million figure and closing the holes in the system, change must happen. Programmes like Speech Bubbles should be part of that change.

Why? Speech Bubbles shows there are new ways to work. By drawing upon the collective expertise of artists, therapists, and educators, the programme demonstrates the potential to create a space which moves away from linear lines, attainment, data sets, and a language of deficit. We can start to close the gaps. It harnesses the new wave of thinking about difference – where the perceived norm is not the sole measure of success or where we place all of our value. A space where the kids that like attention buckets and the kids that like sensory bins can sit side by side, because we recognise that they will learn differently but one way isn’t superior to the other, and both are equally supported to strengthen their communication skills. A space where children feel that being themselves is good enough and if certain elements of learning are more challenging for them, they are comfortable with that, because they also know their strengths, and therefore don’t feel judged as lesser.

That’s the world I want for my son.

 A young boy looks thoughtfully as he interacts with a woman sitting next to him with a pen and paper.
Image Description: A young boy dressed in blue looks thoughtful as he interacts with a woman sitting next to him with a pen and paper.

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