How poor reading and writing feeds the school-to-prison pipeline

How poor reading and writing feeds the school-to-prison pipeline

Think back to when you were at primary school. From bus to bell, you probably spent most of your time speaking and thinking, reading and writing, learning and playing. Whether you knew it or not, you were developing language and social skills. And according to research by La Trobe’s Professor Pamela Snow, a qualified speech pathologist and registered psychologist, these very same skills can play a crucial role in keeping young people safe and preventing youth crime.

Pamela has found that around 50 per cent of young people in Victoria’s youth prisons have a previously undiagnosed language disorder. What’s more, there’s a strong link between the severity of offending and the severity of disordered language skills.

Here, she explains how speech pathologists can help stop kids with language and literacy difficulties from turning into trouble-makers.

Building linguistic skills isn’t easy

Learning how to communicate starts well before you begin school. For children who arrive at school without the right linguistic toolkit, catching up can be hard.

“It’s easy to think that because most people learn how to read and write, at least to some extent, that it’s simple. It’s not, and most kids require prolonged, specific instruction,” Pamela says.

“A five-year-old needs a lot of linguistic capital in place in terms of their vocabulary, knowledge of the world, exposure to stories and complex sentences before they are ready to cross the bridge into literacy. Kids at risk are starting from behind, which means that the education system has to do everything it can to maximise their opportunities.”

Children who are starting from behind need to be taught ‘explicitly up front’, Pamela says.

Without extra help to build up things like vocabulary, grammar and comprehension, these children risk falling further behind and some will end up in the so-called ‘school-to-prison pipeline’.

Understanding the school-to-prison pipeline

The school-to-prison pipeline describes a pathway that starts when students struggle seriously in the early years of school. Around them, their more successful peers relish the increasingly complex curriculum. But those with language and literacy difficulties often become stuck.

“They struggle and start to fall behind, often their behaviour becomes problematic. Before long they are being suspended, missing school and hanging out with other disengaged peers. Not achieving becomes the norm. Then they are knocking off cars, and you can see where the school-to-prison pipeline comes from,” Pamela says.

A more recent study by Pamela found that 87 per cent of a sample of youth offenders in NSW had experienced school suspensions and expulsions.

When students cross the line from being suspended or expelled to being arrested for an offence, school quickly becomes a thing of the past. For Pamela, preventing the pathway from classroom to crime can be a speech pathologist’s most important task.

Teachers know who is in the school-to-prison pipeline, and systems know. It’s our job to keep kids out of it.

Pamela also points out that social marginalisation, while not literally a prison, is a chronic and painful form of social exclusion.

How speech pathologists can help

Because speech pathologists are specialists trained to help children with communication difficulties, they can play a major role in making sure kids don’t progress toward the youth justice system.

As part of the education team, speech pathologists can assess and treat language problems in the classroom. They can work intensively to help children understand and use language – what their teacher is telling them, how to remember new words, how to take part in the back-and-forth of conversation, and how to master reading, writing, and spelling. Pamela describes this early intervention as needing to ‘meet children at the school gate’.

Services to help improve language and literacy skills are also critical for kids already in custody.

Our research in NSW has shown that young people will engage with a speech pathologist when they’re in custody to improve their communication skills, and they make demonstrable gains. We’re now trying to build an evidence base for a service in that setting.

“Speech Pathology Australia is also advocating for registered intermediaries for young people with communication difficulties in contact with the law.”

As a speech pathologist, your skills can support children and young people to cross the bridge to literacy. Which means you can make a system-level difference, strengthen the capacity of schools and teachers, and create new trajectories for children who find learning language tough.

Study a course in Speech Pathology at La Trobe University to solve crimes before they start.

Professor Pamela Snow

Professor Pamela Snow is Head of the La Trobe Rural Health School. She is a qualified speech pathologist and registered psychologist.