Children who communicate poorly or cannot speak are at particular risk of neglect in residential schools. But, given time and expertise, non-verbal ways of communicating can be developed, writes Renuka Jeyarajah-Dent
The challenges and pressures of everyday life in residential schools can sometimes lead to neglect or poor care of children with severe learning difficulties who cannot speak or easily communicate their distress. One report has highlighted the lack of UK research into the issue but cited many researchers and practitioners who emphasised the vulnerability of disabled children to abuse.(1)
If a child cannot speak it can be easy to believe that communication is impossible and to make assumptions that they cannot understand or feel emotions. As care staff spend time with a young person and get to know them, they can learn to understand how that individual is communicating - be it through sounds, pictures, objects of reference, facial expression or body language.
But frequent staff turnover can make "knowing" a child and how they communicate a rarity, rather than the norm. Strategies must be put in place to ensure that this information is documented and shared with all the people caring for that child.
Through even the simplest of signing or use of pictures, children need to learn how to communicate "no" or "hurt" or "help". Falling over or saying goodbye can make you feel "hurt" and teaching a sound or symbol associated with this feeling can give a child a tool of communication. Taking every opportunity as it arises to practise these key words or symbols with children means that they can learn to communicate. Practising the words when, who, which and what repeatedly in different contexts is also important so that children learn that simply accepting should not be an automatic response.
Good and open communication is also vital between staff and between staff and management. One of the more difficult issues of caring for children with severe learning difficulties is their burgeoning sexuality when they reach adolescence. They may have the emotional age of a four-year-old who needs cuddles and affection, but the body of an adult. The problem is how to keep the balance between policies to protect children (especially when they are sexually aware adolescents) and retaining warmth towards them.
Clear policies and procedures that set out what should be said and done in each circumstance are reassuring to staff and encourage openness and honesty. For example, if a child responds to a physical need by touching a carer in a sexual way, there can be an agreed set of words and actions that are applied calmly.
It is useful, even for residential schools with good practice, to review and improve their communication culture. Each one should have a mission statement that is clear about what the residential home is trying to achieve, with whom and how it is to be achieved so that everyone knows what he or she must do to work there.
Although policies and procedures alone cannot protect children, knowing how to recruit safely and what to do if you are worried about abuse is important. There needs to be an organisational culture that treats children as individuals, but with necessary boundaries. So, people should neither "over-objectify", nor should they "over-identify" with the children.
Training should repeatedly emphasise what is expected and acceptable. There needs to be a transparent system that repeatedly shows fair judgements so that children (and adults) learn that this is how life can be and that there are boundaries that cannot be crossed.
Leadership should ensure that the ethos of the organisation is a friendly one but is also authoritative enough to indicate that if people step outside the boundaries of what is known to be acceptable there will be consequences. Finally, there should be frequent review against performance so that the organisation remains a learning one.
Renuka Jeyarajah-Dent works for children's charity NCH as director of The Bridge Child Care Development Service. She worked previously in inner London as an educational psychologist where her special interest lay with children who were in contact with social services. She was also Baaf Adoption and Fostering's first consultant on ethnic minority issues. Any children's organisation that wishes to review its policies and procedures can call on the services of NCH-The Bridge: www.nch.org.uk/ 020 7704 2386
MacIntyre schools support pack: Guide to Managing People Who May Challenge and Support Plan at www.macintyrecharity.org
See also 'We have developed a mentoring approach'
Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals' learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.
Simple procedures and communication practices embedded into the culture of residential schools can maintain a safe and healthy living environment for children and young people with complex learning difficulties.
(1) A Paul, P Cawson and J Paton, Safeguarding Disabled Children in Residential Special Schools, NSPCC in association with the Council for Disabled Children, 2004. Go to
Contact the author
The Bridge, tel: 020 7704 2386