Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Language competence and vulnerable young people: What can we learn from young offenders?

In fields where terminology is highly contested, and subject to all sorts of cross-paradigm tensions, it can be difficult to select the “right” words to describe key issues in particular populations. In this post, the “key issue” I’d like to comment on is language skills and the particular population is young offenders. Young offenders are of interest in their own right, for reasons I'll outline below, but their experiences and trajectories can also illuminate deficiencies in our systems and supports for vulnerable learners. 

I observed in an earlier post that I “fell into” research on language competence and young offenders in the late 1990s, when I was working as a researcher in the adolescent mental health / substance abuse field, and became aware of some of the assumptions in that field about the protective nature of academic achievement in the childhood and adolescent years. This is not to say that academic success “vaccinates” young people against psychosocial adversity, rather that it confers definite benefits, in the short and longer terms. The research on risk and protective factors (discussed further here) got me thinking then, about the role of oral language competence and the fact that in very few academic readings and even fewer discussions with learned folk in the adolescent mental health field, was I coming across any mention of language skills. This struck me as both odd and worrying, and so began a bit of a crusade.

It was fortuitous that I came into contact with Professor Martine Powell around this time, and we got talking about our shared (though different) interests in young people’s communication skills. Martine had already established a significant profile on children’s eye-witness testimony with respect to allegations by children of sexual abuse, and was receptive to my suggestion that we should team up to look at language skills in adolescents in contact with the law. In this new line of research, then, our emphasis was predominantly on young people as suspects, rather than victims or witnesses, bearing in mind of course, that such distinctions are frequently blurred in practice. This is nowhere more evident than in the fact that there is significant cross-over between child protection and youth justice systems, with some 40% of young offenders having their entree into “the system” via the child protection door. In Australia, too, we must deal with the fact that although young people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) backgrounds represent only 5% of their age-group, nearly 40% of young people under youth supervision orders are from ATSI backgrounds.

What is it that you do research on again?
This question, or some variant of it, is one I have faced at many a social gathering, when someone has inquired about the nature of my research. There’s nothing better to focus the mind of an academic than the wide-eyed, slightly askance response of a friend or relative who just can’t see the point behind that thing that takes up an enormous amount of your waking time, on both weekdays and weekends. 

So, over the years, I have honed a response that I can almost pull off in the 3-5 minutes of polite attention most people can offer in the context of mild, if socially constrained interest. It goes something like this:

  1. Most of us would agree that academic achievement is an intrinsically valuable life asset – it fosters access to lifelong learning, marketable employment skills, and participation in the mainstream.
  2. In order to achieve academically, it is essential to master the basics of reading and writing in the first three years of school, and then to rapidly build on those skills for another 10 years or so of formal schooling, before exiting to further study or training.
  3. Learning how to read is overwhelmingly a language-based task, so children who arrive at school with well-developed talking and listening skills are already on the reading runway.
  4. If you (a) struggle to make the transition to literacy in the first three years, (b) also display behaviour difficulties (e.g. restlessness, inattentiveness, conduct problems, poor social skills), and (b) are a boy, life at school will become a daily grind to be endured, rather than enjoyed – by you and your teachers. After the initial focus (essentially the first three years of formal schooling) on learning to read has shifted to reading to learn, you will find much of what goes on in the classroom to be quite challenging with respect to information processing (spoken and written), social and behavioural expectations, and verbal requirements.
  5. If, in addition to the challenges outlined in (4) above, you are from a poor family and live in a low socio-economic status (SES) community, possibly only with one of your biological parents, it’s likely that  you will start school with a less well developed language “toolkit” than children from more advantaged and/or socially stable households and communities. Like most humans, you will probably want to spend time with people similar to yourself, in terms of location, habits, attitudes and beliefs, and indeed aspirations and access to opportunities.
  6. Chances are that before the end of primary school, you will have experienced behavioural sanctions, if not suspension from school, and early in your secondary school career, you will be expelled from one or more schools. Experiences of school success are a distant memory and you and school are not at all warmly disposed towards each other.
  7. In some cases, a teacher or other community member will have made a notification about you to child protection authorities, because they are concerned that your parents are not providing a safe, nurturing environment for you.
  8. There's a high probability that you have been diagnosed with “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” or a “Learning Disorder”– usually by mid-primary school years. You may also have had a burst of some kind of early reading support after the first year of school, however this did not help you to get on track.

    It’s unlikely, however, that anyone has identified that your expressive and/or receptive language skills are well below those expected for your age.
    Yet for around 50% of young people who wind up in the youth justice system, this will be the case.

At this point, if people are still with me, they may ask
So - why study the language skills of young offenders?

For two key reasons:

Firstly, young offenders, by virtue of their characteristic trajectories through the education system and into welfare/youth justice have much to teach us about how schools could become more responsive to the needs of vulnerable learners. In order to do this, several systemic challenges would need to be addressed, such as the knowledge and skill base of teachers, and the supports provided by allied health professionals (e.g. psychologists and speech language pathologists) – both in the home and at school. In addition, an early years curriculum that is genuinely responsive to developmental needs and “holds off” on formal instruction in the first year would probably provide enormous benefit to many of these children, and allow a greater readiness for academic challenges in 6-12 months’ time. At the very least, children who display both learning and behaviour problems would raise "red flags" with respect to the possibility of underlying oral language difficulties. 

Secondly, we need to determine ways of maximising the life chances of young people whose early experiences have been of adversity and early academic failure. Instead of a fatalistic “what can we do?” response (accompanied by a shoulder shrug), I’d like to see a genuine What can we do? approach that is powered by research rigour and persistence. Young offenders often have complex developmental and psychological needs, so there’s no question that language interventions will be complex and require sophisticated skill sets. In that sense, they will be expensive in the short-term. Our failure to address these needs, however, simply means that these problems morph into complex and entrenched behavioural and social difficulties that require longterm and expensive engagement with welfare, mental health, substance abuse, housing, justice and training services – sometimes for many decades. Sadly, there are high rates of inter-generational “replication” of early academic failure, early parenthood, and difficulty attaining marketable employment skills.

Why do young offenders have poor language skills?
There is currently no definitive answer to this, and I am reminded of a famous quote by H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) that

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

If we think about determinants of health and well-being in a bio-psycho-social framework, however, we can see that future researchers will take both genetic and environmental factors into account in order to understand children’s highly uneven patterns of linguistic readiness and academic attainment in the school years and beyond.  Professor Dorothy Bishop’s recent blog post on biological and environmental factors in language development is a recommended read, as is this response, from Professor Susan Rvachew

What matters in the short-term is the social gradient which exists with respect to language development and academic readiness on school entry.

A related debate, but one I will not pursue here, is the question of terminology – do these young people have language disorders, language impairments, or language deficits? I have never been fond of the term “specific language impairment” for this group, (even though their difficulties exist in the context of normal-range nonverbal IQ), perhaps perversely preferring the term “non-specific language impairment”. I realise though, that this is not a catchy term and will do little to attract research funding and/or services for those so-affected. Speech-language pathology and related disciplines, e.g. developmental psychology need to achieve consensus on this, so that the irony of confused language about language problems is resolved.  

In the meantime, however, we need to ensure that social institutions such as schools cater to the widest possible parameters with respect to children’s capacity to adapt to, and thrive in the classroom. A skilled teaching workforce that is truly supported at policy and resource levels to apply evidence-based approaches to instruction, behaviour support, and community engagement would be a great investment for any community.

Why does it matter?
In addition to calling for ways of maximising all children’s access to academic achievement, the study of language skills in young offenders stands to inform:

  1. The design and delivery of therapeutic programs for young offenders, as many such programs are highly verbally mediated (e.g. cognitive behaviour therapy);
  2. The way in which police and judicial personnel engage with young offenders, e.g. in the context of forensic and courtroom interviews; and
  3. The administration of therapeutic jurisprudence approaches such as restorative justice conferencing – again a highly conversational, high stakes intervention.
I will come back to the issue of restorative justice conferencing and its verbal demands in a later blog post. For now, though, the final and thought-provoking comment goes to Rod Morgan, former head of the UK Youth Justice Board:

"It may be too much to say that if we reformed our schools, we would have no need of prisons. But if we better engaged our children and young people in education we would certainly have less need of prisons.  Effective crime prevention has arguably more to do with education than sentencing policy"

© Pamela Snow 2014