Clear communication is the key

Communication is one of the most important ways in which we exert control. Many people with learning disabilities have difficulties with communication and these may contribute to challenging behaviour.

This article is taken from a previous edition of our newsletter, Challenge. You can download PDF copies of many past editions of our newsletter and sign up to receive the newsletter at the link below. 

Expressing Yourself

The person may lack the vocabulary or the physical means necessary to convey their message.

Imagine if you couldn’t:

  • Say that you hadn’t understood
  • Express a preference or need
  • Tell someone how you feel

What might you do then?

Understanding Others

We often think that people can understand more words than they can.  People may need the context and situation to be able to make sense of what is happening. For example, understanding that it is time to go out because someone brings you your coat (rather than understanding the spoken phrase ‘we are going out now’)

People may have a hearing loss, which can make communication even more difficult.

Some abstract concepts are much harder to understand:

  • Negatives (e.g. “not”, “don’t”)
  • Time concepts (e.g. “yesterday”, “this afternoon”)


Teacher’s Message – “You’re not going in the car “.

Ahmed does not understand “not” so thinks that he is going by car and becomes distressed when he realises he will have to walk. The message would have been clearer if the teacher had told him what he was going to do, e.g. “Ahmed, you’re going for a walk”

People may also have difficulties because they are given too much language to process and only understand key words. They might interpret language literally.

Mother‘s message – “You can have a drink after you’ve tidied your room”.

Word understood by Hannah – ‘drink’ then ‘room’.

In English, what we say first is usually what we want the person to do first. Hannah becomes upset when she is expected to tidy her room and has not yet had her drink.

What might you do if you hadn’t understood?

What Helps

  • A good understanding of the ways in which a person communicates and needs to be communicated with.
  • Making sure other people communicate in a way that the person understands (making good use of the context and situation, using simple language, providing additional forms such as objects, signs, symbols and photographs etc).
  • Responding consistently to what we think the person might be trying to communicate or need.
  • Thinking about good communication across all areas of the person’s life.
  • Thinking more widely about good communication environments.   


   Dr Jill Bradshaw, 

   Lecturer in learning disability 

   The Tizard Centre, University of Kent





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Read past copies of Challenge Newsletter

Read past copies of Challenge Newsletter

You can find past editions of our Challenge Newsletter from the last five years on the ‘news’ section of our website. We produce around three editions every year.



If you can’t tell other people what you want (or don’t want!) challenging behaviour can be more likely. Our quick read guide and downloadable information sheet explain how making communication better can reduce challenging behaviour.