Why Your “Zoned-Out” Student May Have a Receptive Language Impairment

December 11, 2017

We have all had students who never seem to be paying attention or following along when they are called on to read or answer a question. It may surprise you, as it surprised me, to find out that your “zoned out” student may actually have a receptive language impairment.

IEP Learning Profiles vs. Special Education Classifications

Unlike the thirteen classifications of special education that appear on a student’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan), IEPs may contain specific learning profiles that can explain more nuanced strengths and challenges. An IEP classification actually tells a teacher very little about what a student struggles with and how to help. A “learning disability” may mean a student struggles with reading, writing, mathematical processes or all three. Similarly, a “speech or language impairment” may mean a student has a stutter or lisp, or that they struggle to comprehend or express oral or written language. Most IEPs do not detail a student’s specific academic needs. This is why I was surprised to find that one of my student’s IEPs did include a detailed learning profile. IEPs are legal documents, and my student’s IEP mandated that he received appropriate academic interventions instead of behavioral consequences to address his receptive language impairment.

Creating an IEP Snapshot

Thanks to the work of my student’s former special education provider, I learned that my student’s receptive language impairment was the real reason he was constantly “caught off guard” when called on to read or answer a question in class.

From that moment forward, I decided to write detailed notes on all of my students’ IEPs to include specific learning profiles and classroom strategies for each student. I then created an “IEP snapshot” to summarize each student’s learning profile and suggested classroom strategies for general education teachers. I hope you find the below characteristics and classroom strategies helpful to support your “zoned out” students who may actually have a receptive language impairment.

Receptive Language Skills

  • Comprehending complicated sentences
  • Following verbal directions
  • Understanding figurative language
  • Attending to spoken language
  • Taking notes from a lecture

Signs of Receptive Language Impairment

  • Not seeming to listen when spoken to
  • Does not seem to “follow along” or pay attention when stories are read aloud
  • Inappropriate off-target responses to questions
  • Answers a previous question
  • Inability to filter out background noises
  • Inability to process emotional inflection
  • Diffculty keeping up with note taking (from verbal lecture/directions)

Classroom Strategies

  • Phrase question so that key words or ideas are at the beginning of the question
  • Instruct student to take a minute before resonding
  • Avoid “gotcha” or “cold call” questions
  • State the students name, pause, and then ask the question slowly
  • Give private, prior warning before calling on a student to answer a question
  • Give credit for correct aspects of answers
  • Talk slowly, even slower than what may seem normal
  • Pause between thoughts and give wait time to avoid auditory overload
  • Provide simple, concrete language in written/ auditory directions
  • Repeat important information in different ways with intonation for emphasis, and summarize at the end
  • Provide visual, kinesthetic and auditory cues
  • Give step-by-step written references and directions
  • Relate new information to concepts already learned
  • Provide constant and continuous review
  • Always provide written directions for assignments
  • Provide written version of lectures or presentation slides

Any student with or without a special education classification may exhibit signs of a receptive language impairment. It is important to assume the best about students when responding to perceived misbehavior. Misbehavior is almost always the manifestation of a learning disability or the coping mechanism for an academic insecurity. This is why it is important to always start with an academic intervention before resorting to a behavioral consequence. The next time your student is “not paying attention” or “zoned out” remember the receptive language impairment strategies above.

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