Chinese Whispers and Garth’s Uncle

As you may have read on Friday, Special Needs Jungle has a new regular contributor in Debs Aspland, the director of Kent PEPS and parent of three children, all with disabilities. Today is her first post about the essentials of good communication.

Communication:  the imparting or exchanging of information or news

It sounds so easy.  It requires one person (the sender) to give another person (the recipient) a piece of information.  The communication is complete when the person receiving the information understands what the person giving the information has said.  So why is it so difficult?

Navigating this jungle can bring  many negative emotions; often caused by inadequate or incorrect communication.  How often have you sat in a meeting when the flow of jargon has left you feeling that you must be in a different country? How often do you hear information from one practitioner, only to hear the exact opposite from their colleague, who sits next to them in the office?  How often has a parent told you something but another parent has told you that you’ve been given the wrong information?

When the Pathfinders launched, so many parents (and some practitioners) believed that the Statutory Assessment process would no longer be valid.  It took months to ensure that everyone knew this was not the case.

With SEN reforms moving forward rapidly, getting communication right is essential.

We need to ensure that senior management in local authorities and the Change Boards, who are involved in the day to day running of the Pathfinder, communicate effectively with their frontline staff;  the frontline staff need to communicate effectively with families and the Department for Education needs to communicate effectively with the Pathfinders, the Voluntary Sector, families and other interested stakeholders.

have you heard

On paper, it looks straightforward so what are the barriers to effective communication?

During my first few years in the Jungle, I had to learn a whole new language, with an endless list of jargon and acronyms.  To access additional support for a nursery placement in Kent, you have to go via SCAG (Severe, Complex and Accessibility Group ) funding.  To this day, I detest the term.  Scag is slang for an unkempt or despicable person; and also for heroin; this was the definition I found when I googled SCAG to find out more about the support the nursery was requesting.  In other authorities, it has a different name, e.g. SESS – Special Education Support Service (sounds much more pleasant than SCAG).

Is it correct to call it SEN or is it AEN?.  How does SALT differ from SLCN?  Does my son have ASD or ASC?  Is my son VI or SI? What is sensory integration? Why is OT in Health different to OT in Social Care?

Interestingly, jargon is defined as “Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand” so why do we use it?  Who benefits?


One of the other issues is how information is understood by the recipient.  We all hear things differently, that is why Chinese Whispers is such a fun party game.  Until I was 24, I thought Simon & Garfunkel was Simon & Garth’s Uncle.  More amusingly, I never questioned why he would be happy just being known as Garth’s Uncle.

So when information is passed on, it needs to be understood before the communication can be effective.  So, how do we address it?  If you could give one solution towards solving communication problems between families, practitioners, local authorities and the Government, what would it be?


Debs Aspland
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  1. Hi Debs – really interesting article . There are a couple of Russian linguists who argue that meaning is a negotiated process and that communication can be dominated by the interests of the powerful . If I was looking to resolve the communication difficulties that exist between families – practitioners – local govt and government. I’d deconstruct the silo’s. So instead of talking about ‘families – practitioners – local govt and government’ we would be talking about the ‘team around the child’ or ‘circle of friends’. The challenge would be to get all concerned to give up a little of their power in the interests of the child.

  2. Mumof3

    Totally agree with the last commenter about those giving up their power. Too often, in my experience, power, self interest and status of practitioners comes before the individual. It can disempower families and hinder communication to such an extent that it can lead to resentment and distrust. One of the greatest things any of us can do is to empower others because it encourages trust and dialogue, which I find is often lacking between practitioners and families.

    As for specific approaches, we shouldn’t assume that a ‘team around the family’ is the right way to go for every family. It may sound logical in terms of commuicating between different people but what do families feel about this way of doing things? For me I’m not comfortable with the language. It feels patronising and suggests that me and my husband are crap at parenting and need loads of support. Dont get me wrong; Im sure it works for some families but for me it makes me shy away from dealing with practitioners because it feels as if my family are open to scrutiny from people I barely know. I much prefer to develop a trusting relationship with one key practitioner before rushing into anything like this which goes back to my first point: encourage trust between the parties to enable greater communication.

  3. sandy

    I really enjoyed your blog deb.Its refreshing to hear that someone has a better understanding of what is communication.Am going to borrow a little of this blog to help others who I work with to give them a better understanding

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