Giving children in institutions a voice

23.06.14
Every child has the right to a say in decisions that affect them.
 
Being heard helps children feel respected and safe, and can increase their self-esteem.  It also helps to protect their fundamental human rights to safety and security. Children that are silenced, or unheard, cannot challenge violence and abuse, for example.
 
Lumos is working to ensure children with severe learning disabilities living in large institutions are heard, by helping them develop language skills and teaching others how to interpret their non-verbal communication.
 
Unlike most children raised in families, children in institutions don’t learn that their voice is important and often struggle with language development as a result. 
 
They have few opportunities for interactions where they can practise verbal communication; few objects around them which inspire them to develop a wide vocabulary; and few opportunities to learn signalling gestures such as pointing. Their attempts at communication often go unheard and overlooked in busy and overstretched environments.   
 
Children with intellectual difficulties who grow up in institutions can be profoundly affected in their language development. But it is never too late to help children improve their skills. 
 
Lumos has implemented a language tool in several institutions in Bulgaria and Czech Republic, which is used to assess how much verbal language children with severe learning disabilities can understand and to then advise carers on how to communicate with children at a level that is achievable and understandable for the child, and how to continue to build their language skills.
 
Speech and language therapist Cath Irvine, who has experience working in institutions across Eastern Europe, designed the tool.  
 
“The first stage of the tool assesses how much language the child understands.  Children’s single-word understanding of real-sized objects is assessed by asking questions like ‘Where is your bed?’.  If a child can point out the object, the assessment progresses to using miniature versions of the same objects to see if the child can make the connection that the word bed still applies for a miniature version of a bed. This then moves to pictures of objects and gradually gets more difficult.”
 
The tool will also help carers interpret and respond appropriately to the child’s non-verbal ways of communicating feelings, like pain, happiness and sadness.  For example, a child may be scratching their face because they have a toothache. 
 
As Lumos works to end institutionalisation and move children into family and community- care, the tool will be essential in helping children prepare for these changes.  It provides a great step towards helping children with severe learning disabilities fulfil their potential and be included in decisions about their future. 
 
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