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Disruptive - or disabled

Pupils with speech problems can come across as difficult. But their real needs must be tackled, Linda Lascelles argues

Politicians are shaping up to make classroom discipline an election issue, striking media-savvy poses on tackling "unruly" pupils by removing them from class. But are they over-simplifying a complex issue?

Unfortunately, some of the million or so children in the UK with speech and language disabilities that we represent - two for every classroom in the country - may be labelled "disruptive" because their impairments remain unrecognised and misunderstood.

Such children face frustration and isolation daily, which can spill over if their needs are not met. Language is central to teaching and to their engagement. Those who are not engaged are potentially disruptive.

The drive to place all children in mainstream schools also puts these children at risk if the appropriate speech and language support services are not established. At the very least, any child threatened with removal should be assessed to identify whether there are any undiscovered educational needs or speech and language complications.

The complexity of these disorders calls for specialist identification.

Teachers need support, training and time to adapt their approaches and enable these pupils to develop the communication skills others seem to pick up instinctively and effortlessly.

Children learn better in well-ordered, appropriately staffed settings, but rather than focus on the easy target of "unruly" children, politicians should rise to the challenge of debating what could make their inclusion policy work.

More consideration needs to be given to the skills mix that will enable teachers to do their job: their training, the specialist and support staff needed in all schools that can help to achieve child-centred, needs-led provision and improved educational standards for all.

It is vital that politicians get their approach right or they will create an atmosphere of friction and distrust between schools and families, who will feel their children are being wrongly accused and denied the opportunity to achieve.

The challenge facing everyone involved is to identify why children are unruly and to what extent the changes in our educational policies and provision contribute.

Whichever party wins, policy-makers must understand that the issue of classroom discipline is not a simple one and needs more than sound-bites and quick-fix solutions. We must not let our children be lost for words.

Linda Lascelles is chief executive of Afasic, a charity representing children and young adults with speech, language and communication impairments. www.afasic.org.uk

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