Promoting language development in traumatised children: 3 ideas

July 15, 2015

By Psychologist Alison Soutter, Psych4Schools Guest Blogger

There is such a strong nexus between drug and alcohol issues, domestic violence and harm to children. People who are drunk or drug affected most days or who live in fear are unlikely to be able to provide the care infants and young children need. For many children a lack of care or nurturing can result in the impairment of social and language development.

For a child to learn language effectively someone has to talk to them and respond to their attempts at communication.

When the parent or carer regularly responds to early utterances, the child learns to watch and listen and makes continued efforts to communicate and to express themselves.

In the classroom abused and neglected children often stand out because of their challenging behaviour. The language deficits that underlie such behaviour may not be immediately obvious. Children may cover up the fact that their receptive language is so poor that they do not understand much of what is said to them, instead making guesses based on a few familiar phrases. They may not do as they are asked because they do not understand. As a result they may feel upset and ashamed and will often do something untoward to express their feelings.

These children are likely to also have very poor pragmatic language. Often they have not learned to ask for what they need, because in their experience nobody is listening. They do not have basic skills in initiating, maintaining and ending conversations, greeting, smiling, and expressing opinions, feelings and emotions – all the things that make social interactions successful. This will often mean that other children do not like them or find it difficult to connect with them.

There are many interventions that will be beneficial for a traumatised child and for the whole class. The first is to be careful to give simple instructions. Don’t say, ‘Get out your book and open it to page 27 and answer the first three questions….’ Instead, give instructions one at a time, so everyone has the best chance to know what to do.

Storytelling is another simple intervention, and coincidentally a wonderful behaviour management technique. If you tell, rather than read stories to the class you will captivate them. Look into their eyes and adjust the story according to their reactions. If your wriggliest student looks like they are about to wriggle, then shorten that part of the story. If they are all on the edge of their seats, draw it out. If anyone looks like misbehaving, stop, saying that is enough for now, if we all work hard there may be time to hear more of the story later.

The stories that work best are folktales and legends. You can tell Greek legends to any age group, as their rich complexity will appeal to teenagers, while the action and humour will appeal to very young students. I have great success with Hercules because he was really very naughty but also heroic. I set the stories in Wagga Wagga in the 50s. As the storyteller you can locate the story wherever and whenever you wish.

When you finish telling a story do not ask questions. Let the story sit until the next day, then come back to it and ask open-ended questions, which allows everyone to participate. I usually ask, ‘Now what was that story we had yesterday?’ and together we reconstruct the narrative. Everyone’s contributions are valued equally. This teaches recall, pragmatic language, sequencing, expands vocabulary and teaches turn taking. In addition, the pro-social messages embedded in the story, support the development of social skills.

Word games are particularly beneficial for students with poor language skills.  You might play games involving naming objects and their characteristics: What is there at home, at school, in the park, in the kitchen and so on. You might see how they manage analogies e.g. Blue is to the sky as green is to the… (grass). Ask students to describe the characteristics of a person; the clothing they are wearing, or say as many words as they can that begin with the same letter, or words with the opposite meaning to the words given. See who can recount all the things they do from the time they get up until they go to bed.

Whatever games you play or questions you ask remember that the purpose is to give all students, including those with a trauma background the chance to experience success, improve their language and help them feel that school is a safe haven.

Alison Soutter is an experienced Educational Psychologist and a member of the Psychology Board of Australia Examination Committee. She can be contacted at

***Top image by Lyn Lomasi. Some rights reserved. Accessed on Flickr July, 2015