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Building resilience in children with speech and language impairment

If your child’s disability includes a speech or language impairment, one of the things you might worry about is how well they are going to make friends when they start school.

Speech and language impairments can affect around 7-12% of preschool children [1] and around two children in an average year 1 class of 30 children [2].

Friendships and resilience

Having a speech or language impairment can make it more difficult for children to make friends at school [2]. But, while there are some factors that you won’t be able to influence – like the nature of your child’s impairment, the school environment, and the other people involved – there are things you can do as a parent to help your child prepare. 

Researchers have looked into what makes some children more resilient than others, and have identified three major factors that can help children cope:

  • Hope. A belief that things will go well, or could change for the better.
  • Agency. A belief that effecting this change is within their own power.
  • Positive relationships. An experience of forming bonds with others [1].

Hope is an essential part of how children build resilience and cope with challenging situations at school and in other social settings. Your child’s teachers and healthcare providers, and you as a parent, can all play a crucial role in encouraging your child to feel positive about what the future holds. Ask your child about their hopes and worries, and help them find a way through to the outcomes they want.


Children are likely to cope better if they position themselves in an active role in their social circle. This means taking responsibility for how their friendships are formed and maintained, rather than waiting for others to come to them [1]. You can support this by encouraging your child to develop skills like nonverbal communication, coherence, and knowing how to initiate conversations [3]. Talking point – an initiative by the communication charity ICAN – has activities, DVDs and top tips to promote children’s communication development from babies to the teenage years.  

Positive relationships

Children can benefit from having positive relationships in all areas of their lives, including with family members – that includes you as a parent, but also siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbours, and even pets.

Your child will learn social skills from your examples. You can be a positive force by demonstrating warmth and empathy, and reassuring them of how capable they are. Your child may not be able to win everyone over, but if they can maintain some positive friendships, it will help build their resilience and balance out any negative experiences [1]. Encourage your child to invite their friends home and try not to be over protective.

Children with severe learning difficulties

Children with severe learning difficulties often have complex communication needs, but they communicate about the same things as everyone else – their feelings, their needs, their likes and dislikes, and so on. They are more likely to use gestures, facial expressions or behaviour to do this, rather than speech. If your child has a severe learning difficulty, you can support them to express themselves and communicate their needs in a positive way – see Mencap’s guide to communicating with people with profound and multiple learning difficulties (pdf download).

If your child needs support to make friends

The Circle of Friends approach was developed to help disabled children – who may be vulnerable to isolation at school – to be more included in mainstream settings. A group of the young person’s friends and peers are brought together at their school with the aim of creating a support network for them. Circles of Support is a similar approach to including people in the community, where a group of people meet to help someone achieve their goals in life.

Ask professionals involved in your child’s care about putting these approaches in place, or find out more at

Ways to support your child’s communication

There are different ways to help your child learn to communicate their needs, and make sense of what is going to happen throughout the day: 

  • You can use pictures and photos to explain what is going to happen if they have limited understanding or are non-verbal.
  • You can show your child objects (such as a nappy if you are going to change them) before commencing the next step of your routine.
  • You can demonstrate the routines visually. For example, if you are going out, show your child your coat and point to the door.
  • Try to break down your sentences into single words and keep them simple.
  • Many parent carers find they can help their child to understand and
    communicate using signs for basic needs, such as sleep, hunger and thirst.

You can also learn to communicate by:

A social story describes a situation and possible sequence of events to a child to prepare them for what is likely to happen. There are also picture books for children to help prepare them for new experiences, such as going to school, travelling on a plane, moving house, visiting the dentist or hospital, and so on. Search for ‘social stories’ at

You can get help to find the best communication system for your child by speaking to professionals such as Portage workers (for pre-school children) and speech and language therapists. You may be entitled to aids and equipment to help your child communicate, like voice recognition or eye-tracking systems, through the occupational therapy service.

How to support your child’s resilience

The social skills children pick up in their pre-school years become the basis for their friendships as they get older. The way you interact with your child at home will not only support the development of their social skills, but also boost their resilience to cope with the challenges of having a speech or language impairment [4]. 

Even if your child is still very young, it is important to give them an opportunity to make friends and practise their social skills [4]. Early meetings can allow your child to experiment while the stakes are low, so that they already have an understanding of how to make new friends when they arrive at school.

Playdates may not be an option for some, but it’s important to find a space where your child can be involved with other children. Many disabled children are able to go to local playgroups and nurseries. Specialist nurseries may be a more suitable option for some children with complex special needs. Check your local area, or call Contact’s free helpline for more information.

Other things you can do

Other factors affecting your child’s resilience include:

  • Self-esteem.
  • Belief in their own abilities.
  • An understanding of their strengths and limitations.
  • Being able to solve problems.
  • A sense of what their future holds.
  • Knowing how to set and work toward goals.
  • Humour [5].

Depending on your child’s impairment, which may call for some workarounds and adjustments, most of these skills can be learned and developed. Through warm, sensitive, and supportive care, you can help your child work on these qualities, so that they feel more secure and more trusting of others when they start school [5].

The following suggestions from parents and disabled young people may help:

  • Reinforce with your child the fact that everyone is different.
  • Remind them of the things they are good at.
  • Encourage them to be assertive.
  • There are more and more positive role models in the media – point them out to your child without making too much of an issue.
  • Help your child to develop diversion tactics for any questions about their condition that they do not choose to answer, for example by changing the subject.
  • Respect their opinions.
  • Encourage them to learn about and manage their condition as they get older.
  • Encourage them to make their own decisions about all aspects of their life as far as possible. This will help them to become more assertive and independent, and to feel that they have some control over the way they look and their life in general.
  • Try not to talk about your child or their condition as if they were not present. This often happens in medical appointments.

Give your child clear instructions as to what is expected of them, and lead by example. Demonstrate your own warmth, and encourage your child to have a sense of empathy and concern for others. When children understand how these things work, they can learn to cope better with the challenges they face.

Although communication can take time to develop, and some children will always need support, with your help your child can build a sense of resilience, feel better about what the future holds, and start making friendships that matter [5].


[1] Lyons, R. and Roulstone, S. (2018) Well-being and resilience in children with speech and language disorders. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 61. pp. 324-344. doi:10.1044/2017_JSLHR-L-16-0391 Available from:

[2] Norbury, C. F., Gooch, D., Wray, C., Baird, G., Charman, T., Simonoff, E., Vamvakas, G. and Pickles, A. (2016). The impact of nonverbal ability on prevalence and clinical presentation of language disorder: evidence from a population study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 57(11), 1247–1257.

[3] Laws, G., Bates, G., Feuerstein, M., Mason-Apps, E., & White, C. (2012). Peer acceptance of children with language and communication impairments in a mainstream primary school: associations with type of language difficulty, problem behaviours and a change in placement organization. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 28(1), 73-86. DOI: 10.1177/0265659011419234

[4] Estes, A., Munson, J., St. John, T. et al. (2018) Parent Support of Preschool Peer Relationships in Younger Siblings of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 48(4), pp.1122-32.

[5] Hill, M., Stafford, A., Seaman, P., Ross, N. and Daniel, B. (2007) Parenting and resilience. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Accessed online:

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