Communication and Violence New Roles for Speech-Language Pathologists Features
Features  |   April 01, 2002
Communication and Violence
Author Notes
  • Beth Nishida, is coordinator of special education at Hacienda La Puente USD in La Puente, CA. Contact her by email at
    Beth Nishida, is coordinator of special education at Hacienda La Puente USD in La Puente, CA. Contact her by email at×
  • Judy Montgomery, is an associate professor at Chapman University in Orange, CA. Contact her by email at
    Judy Montgomery, is an associate professor at Chapman University in Orange, CA. Contact her by email at×
  • Dixie Sanger, is a professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Contact her by email at
    Dixie Sanger, is a professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Contact her by email at×
  • Barbara Moore-Brown, is director of Special & Alternative Education at the El Rancho Unified School District in Pico Rivera, CA. Contact her by email at
    Barbara Moore-Brown, is director of Special & Alternative Education at the El Rancho Unified School District in Pico Rivera, CA. Contact her by email at×
Article Information
School-Based Settings / Language Disorders / Features
Features   |   April 01, 2002
Communication and Violence
The ASHA Leader, April 2002, Vol. 7, 4-14. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.07082002.4
The ASHA Leader, April 2002, Vol. 7, 4-14. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.07082002.4
Although the U.S. Department of Education reports that school violence is actually decreasing, information from the National Education Goals Panel related to drug-free and violence-free schools is not so encouraging. Like many other societal issues, school safety and the realities that lead children to engage in violent behavior are multifaceted and difficult to identify.
A Role for Speech-Language Pathologists
As educators and citizens attempt to address these complex issues, SLPs in public schools have discovered that they, too, need to be actively involved in addressing this problem. One approach is to develop prevention programs and examine previously under-identified areas of concern for students who are at risk or who are actively involved in violent behavior.
The primary intervention goal related to students who have behavioral issues includes teaching them alternate modes of dealing with troubling issues and consequently helping them avoid involvement with the judicial system. This can be accomplished by presenting students with alternatives to violence, which can be learned through training in social skills, dispute resolution, and peer mediation.
As the experts in communication in the schools, SLPs have much to contribute to these areas of critical need. Clinicians who take on this new role must be aware of research indicating the impact of language disorders on these troubled students, laws relating to students with disabilities who demonstrate behavioral issues, and intervention strategies and service delivery models that can best serve these students.
The challenging background of students involved in violent behavior includes home, learning, and societal issues. Research has indicated that many individuals who are incarcerated have learning disabilities. It is widely known that many experience dyslexia. Addressing learning disabilities may seem an unlikely way to reduce school violence, yet successful students typically do not become involved with the school discipline program, and ultimately in further legal problems.
Analyzing the profiles of incarcerated individuals can help educators and policy makers learn where prevention activities need to occur. For nearly 30 years, researchers have investigated the impact of language disorders on the juvenile offender population. Recently, for example, the work of Dixie Sanger and her colleagues has shown that up to 19% of incarcerated female juvenile delinquents have language disorders, a finding that has profound implications for educators.
Knowledge of this area of research is increasingly important for SLPs and other educators, especially considering requirements established under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Amendments of 1997 in terms of behavior. In the past, clinicians in schools may have sent uncooperative students back to class. Today, the SLP will likely be called to assist in training students with behavioral problems in effective communication skills.
Communication Profiles of Incarcerated Youth
The communication profiles of incarcerated adolescents highlight some surprising difficulties. Research with 13 incarcerated female teenagers with language impairments revealed receptive and expressive language problems that can provide clues for SLPs planning intervention programs (Sanger, Moore-Brown, Rezac, Montgomery, & Keller, in preparation). For example, participants were unable to nam e synonyms for words such as “verify” or “justify,” or define words such as “caution” or “no vacancy.” Interview information from the girls revealed a history of school failure partially related to their language and learning problems. When asked to describe their learning, the students answered:
  • “I didn’t read. I don’t like reading.”

  • “Some of my books I didn’t understand what I read.”

  • “I had trouble understanding some vocabulary, or I couldn’t understand what I had read.”

  • “I need things kind of like broken down to where I can understand it.”

  • “I could not understand directions unless repeated over and over.”

Triangulated information from observations, interviews, records, and test findings supports the important role of the SLP in planning for this challenging population. These youths do not appear to understand the language level of curriculum materials and the spoken language of the teacher. It is doubtful if many can explain and reflect on words like “interpret” and “contrast,” understand and use figurative language, follow oral directions containing multiple parts, use vocabulary to sufficiently express their feelings, organize narratives, and/or understand what they have read. Conclusions from this qualitative research suggest the need to consider not only listening and speaking behaviors, but also the interaction of language and communication, reading, and writing.
Although there is sufficient research documenting the prevalence of communication problems and the role of communication in violence, less is known about what to do with these data. Until educators and other professionals include information from SLPs and consider the role of language and communication in violence, effective outcomes are less likely to occur. Our knowledge that school clearly does not seem to have been a positive experience for these young people can guide our actions.
Legal Requirements Under IDEA
The right to an education is considered a constitutional property right in the United States. Therefore, when a student is removed from school, due process of law is applied. This relates to short-term removal (suspension) or long-term removal (expulsion). Requirements for student behavior are outlined in education codes. Administrators and teachers are faced with enforcing the rules while working with a student’s individual problems. Special educators must always focus on teaching students appropriate behavior.
Special education is designed to provide a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment to individuals with exceptional needs (IWENs). Once a student is found to be eligible under IDEA, all educational needs must be addressed. Therefore, if a student with a specific learning disability or a language disorder also has behavioral difficulties, the school is required to address those issues through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. Students being served under IDEA have extra rights and protections—beyond those of general education students—if they have discipline problems.
IDEA 1997 provides specific protections designed for students who are being considered for removal from school. These protections exist to ensure that FAPE has been provided. If an IWEN has been suspended for up to 10 days and/or if that student is recommended for expulsion, a process called Manifestation Determination takes place. This process involves a multi-disciplinary assessment that examines whether the behavior for which the student is being disciplined is related to the student’s disability in any way, if the student’s special education services are appropriate, and whether the student knew right from wrong. SLPs will be part of this process for students who are receiving speech and language services or for students who may be suspected of having a speech or language disorder.
For students with behavioral problems, the special education team must consider the development of a behavior intervention plan (also known as a behavior support plan). Behaviors ranging from classroom disruptions or physical aggression to criminal actions involving drugs , weapons, or assault are the responsibility of the IEP team. The team must intervene and design a plan to change the behavior. SLPs have a responsibility to examine language processing and communication disabilities that may be contributing to the behavioral concerns presented by the students. (For a complete discussion of behavior and student discipline as it relates to SLPs in schools, including ideas regarding behavior intervention plans, see Moore-Brown & Montgomery, 2001.)
This process applies to any disruptive or inappropriate behavior engaged in by students with special needs. These procedures must be well understood by educators. The procedures do not prohibit or prevent the removal of dangerous or violent students, but failure to follow these requirements can lead to dangerous or disruptive students returning to the campus.
Behavioral requirements under IDEA are designed to ensure that IEP teams consider—and implement—interventions that may prevent students from becoming violent and/or disruptive. Students with behavioral issues may not have been previously referred for a speech and language evaluation. As students with behavioral challenges become increasingly involved with the discipline system in schools, teams should consider the results obtained in Sanger’s work. This research may lead teams to ponder if language intervention may benefit some students. Realizing that students with these challenges may have difficulties with vocabulary, higher level language processing, and social language usage, the school team can redirect intervention plans to new areas. Language intervention may empower students with strategies to address underlying needs.
Communication Intervention
Students with communication disabilities who have behavioral difficulties, including violence, will benefit from intervention strategies that address their specific needs. Many who report frequent instances of teasing, bullying, and threats of violence in school do not go to their parents or school authorities for help. Most keep these episodes secret from their parents, at least some of the time. If clinicians cannot talk to troubled teens on tough issues such as violence, we have a responsibility to find another way to help. SLPs who serve students with language disabilities recognize that counseling discussions and spoken interactions with these students are often frustrating and ineffective as their language disabilities get in the way.
A scaffolded narrative is a specific intervention strategy that has been found to be effective with troubled youth. Students in grades 6–12 can be very self-absorbed, and stories they create about their own lives can therefore serve as a context for learning. The narratives that students write frequently reflect the stories of their lives or the stories they tell themselves. Westby (1991) states that “we dream, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, love, hate, believe, doubt, plan, construct, gossip, and learn in narrative” (p. 352). Students involved in school violence have a great need to express those feelings in oral and written forms, although they often lack the language and organizational skills to do so. Whereas typically developing children can write simple narratives by age 8, students with significant language disabilities often cannot do so even at age 14 or 15.
One urban high school used a scaffolded writing process incorporating the expanded role of school-based SLPs in written language as the primary form of intervention for students with mild, moderate, or severe communication disabilities. The students’ narratives were the content and context of their therapy and also resulted in a student publication at the end of the academic year. Not surprisingly, most of the stories were autobiographical or thinly veiled fiction about the writer’s true hopes, dreams, or fears. The stories not only facilitated a student’s writing skills (meeting IEP objectives and school district benchmarks), but also resulted in insightful discussions and deep thought about how violent episodes in a student’s life could be managed.
Briefly, the technique began by students reading other students’ stories, deciding on a story to write, naming and describing characters in detail, drawing a storyboard with stick people to show the episodes, writing during each session, naming the story, and editing it for publication. The SLP maintained close monitoring, guiding and teaching narrative concepts, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and orthographic skills throughout the process. The story belonged to the student.
SLPs using this technique have made the following observations.
  • No matter how many times students were urged to make up any story they wanted about any place they wanted, they wrote stories about themselves.

  • They often struggled mightily to resolve the problem they created in their story.

  • It took many students a long time to start, but they all wrote eventually.

  • They were eager to come to treatment sessions.

  • They asked to write another story when they were done.

  • They addressed almost all their language/communication IEP objectives within the preparation of their stories.

In the process of providing interventions in a new way, SLPs found service delivery models evolving toward a multi-disciplinary approach. Working collaboratively with general and special education teachers allowed for a safe learning environment. Schools sought to be violence free, and students reported they felt “safe” with these educators. When students feel comfortable and trust educators, they are more likely to respond to interventions. Students must be told, however, that if any educator becomes aware of a situation that threatens the safety of that student or another, the educator is required to report that information.
SLPs may find that working in groups with students in a co-teaching setting with counselors, psychologists, administrators, or teachers can create service delivery models that are highly interactive and interesting for students. These are great settings to teach appropriate social and problem-solving skills, to role-play, and to discuss situations. By working collaboratively with a professional from a different training background, educators can team effectively in ways that will benefit students and, not only prevent tragic events, but also prevent students from becoming involved in the juvenile justice system.
In order to decrease incidents of school violence, all educators must continue to study the complex issues that contribute to children engaging in these behaviors. Research with incarcerated youth indicating that language disorders may be present in this population provides information for prevention planning in schools.
Understanding that language and communication skills may be a part of the multifaceted profile of students who engage in violence allows SLPs the opportunity to assist in guiding students in a positive direction.
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April 2002
Volume 7, Issue 8