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Effects of Emotional Impairment on Language & Communication Development

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

Emotional impairment is a term for several issues a child may have that negatively affects their learning and life skills. Among the areas often impacted are their listening, attention, and language skills. In this lesson we will discuss how and why.

The New Student

Jacob loved teaching fourth grade, but when this school year began, one of the new arrivals had him puzzled. Amanda sat in the back of the room all day, sometimes very quietly, sometimes squirming. She rarely raised her hand, got out of her seat, or spoke to anyone. She didn't seem to listen when he taught, and often appeared a million miles away. At times, Jacob thought she might be about to burst into tears, especially when others tried to engage her in play or conversation. How strange, Jacob thought, and decided to do some digging.

As Jacob read through Amanda's school file, it baffled him that her grades in his class were so poor. She didn't appear ill, her IQ was normal, and as far as he could tell her vision and hearing seemed all right. She did, however, seem very sad and withdrawn.

What is Emotional Impairment?

After some thought, he looked up the definition for emotional impairment. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) calls it emotional disturbance, and defines it as one or more of the following that negatively affects a child's educational performance markedly over a period of time:

  • Difficulty learning that is not related to intellectual, sensory, or health factors
  • Difficulty developing relationships with teachers and peers
  • Inappropriate behavior or feelings in normal situations
  • A generally unhappy or depressed mood
  • Physical symptoms related to personal or school problems

This could be it, Jacob thought, and went to his principal the next day.

Making a Plan

Before long, Amanda was being tested. Jacob contributed his observations from class. The results indicated she had an anxiety disorder.

With the evaluation and diagnosis complete, a team met at the school to develop an IEP (individualized educational plan) for Amanda. Her grandmother, who was raising her, attended and expressed hope that Amanda could be helped.

The team recommended that Amanda see a doctor who could find the proper approach to manage her anxiety. Britton, the school social worker, explained that emotional disturbances like anxiety were often as much medical conditions as diabetes and could be treated similarly.

Emotional Impairment's Effects on Language

When Clay, the speech pathologist, spoke up, he had quite a lot to say. ''I assessed Amanda's speech and language,'' Clay said, ''and I was pretty much expecting what I found. Studies have shown that anywhere from 50 to over 70 percent of children with emotional impairments also have trouble with their communication skills, particularly receptive language and expressive language.

Receptive language is understanding, comprehension, vocabulary, and listening. One study showed of all academic subjects, children with emotional impairments scored lowest in that area. The reasons depend on the specific diagnosis of each child; in Amanda's case, she told me she was constantly trying not to think about things that worry her, so she has very little extra energy left to listen and attend in class.

How many of you have studied a foreign language? I bet most or all of us did in school. You could understand a lot more than you could speak, right? That applies to one's native language, too. If a child has trouble listening, then their expressive language skills are going to suffer also. So this problem follows from the previous one.

Amanda's vocabulary and her ability to express her thoughts and ideas are behind for her age, which really is typical for children with emotional disturbance. She doesn't feel safe speaking up, so it becomes a vicious cycle, and the expressive skills continue to decline.''

How Others Can Help

''As her classroom teacher, I'm on the front line, so to speak,'' Jacob said to Clay. ''How can I help Amanda?''

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