speech language pathology

I believe the children are our future

The world has felt scary and unsafe lately. While that used to be a “Jen-thing” for a good chunk of my life (i.e., let’s work on this in therapy, why does the world feel so scary for no reason?) it’s currently….not. I’m not even slightly alone in this feeling, and honestly, rather than that being comforting, I only wish it was a Jen-thing rather than our reality.

And one thing I tried to figure out back in January was, what the heck am I going to do/talk about/say to/work on with my students? We’re in a situation where we as educators and therapists can’t share our fears or beliefs with our students (which could be a whole post in and of itself ), but where our students are aware of what’s happening in the world, regardless of their own beliefs about it (which at many of their ages, are just their parents’ beliefs being parroted).

So after a lot of thinking and toying with different ideas, I decided to do a project around “World Issues”. It started about a month ago, with us talking about Martin Luther King Jr., and how we had a day off to celebrate him, and why we celebrate him and what issues he cared about. Then we brainstormed other issues that exist in the world or in our community. You guys – kids KNOW. They hear things and they are aware, and they care. They very quickly rattled off issues and examples that they’ve heard of or witnessed in our world and community. Here’s an example of one group’s brainstorm (excuse the horrible picture quality):

The dialogue that happened was powerful. For each group it meant different things – sometimes simpler and sometimes more in depth, but the point was, they all had reactions and feelings about these topics. I could write for days about each group and the conversations we had, but I’ll just share this one: One student said “war? But that doesn’t happen anymore. There hasn’t really been a war wince World War 2.” And then another student said, “War happens all the time still, like in Syria,” and the first student responded, “That can’t be right. If a war was going on, the United States would do something about it and make it end and not just ignore it.” I know. Powerful.

Politics came up here and there – how could they not? But we kept things factual (“yes, that did happen, yes, that order was signed, yes, some people are upset about it, yes, some people are happy about it”) and moved on.

Then they each chose an issue that they cared a lot about. With two different graphic organizers, they brainstormed and organized information on their issue. The project culminated in them writing a paragraph about the issue of their choosing, and for my students, this is no small feat. All of the steps involved in writing a paragraph when you have significant learning/language disabilities and challenges, maybe with ADHD and anxiety also, can take up to 5 or 6 48-minute sessions. Which is why their end products are so wonderful and move me to tears. (For the record, I also got moved to tears when they wrote a paragraph comparing and contrasting two different types of penguins – they are just such smart kids, such hard workers, and it is not. at. all. easy for them)

So: enjoy. Here’s the final products (with a pretty bulletin board display to come, hopefully next week) of some of my wonderful 6th-8th graders. Read one or two or all of them – because this is the world from the next generation’s perspective. This is the future.

“I will always love you, Bob”

[I could use this post to write about empathy, pretend play, imagination, special education…..but really, it speaks for itself without my commentary.]

A little figurine of Bob the Minion sits on my desk (thanks to my wonderful husband who knows toys are the way to my heart….), with a magenta stuffed turtle, and a little Pinkie Pie figurine, and several others.

At the end of our session on Friday, Polly chose her sticker and was putting back the sheet of stickers when she glanced at Bob. She sees him each time she’s in my office, often referencing how much she loves the Minions, sometimes asking to pet him on the head (obviously that’s what he wants), and sometimes just acknowledging his presence.

Today, she suggested, “I think we need to write him a note. So that he feels happy and doesn’t feel scared.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “What should the note say?”

“It should say ‘I will always love you, Bob.'” Then he will know that you love him and he will be happy!”

She got out a post-it note and handed me a pen.

After angling the note so that he would be able to read it, Polly was satisfied.


Pro vs. Noob

With nearly all of my kids, we talk so much about “smart guesses” vs. “wacky guesses” – a concept that applies in social situations as well as academics. For example, if someone tells you, “You’d better bring your umbrella today,” a smart guess about why they said that, is, It’s probably going to rain today. A wacky guess would be, It’s going to be a beautiful sunny day. If a history book says, “By the end of the war, the population was down 20,000 people,” a smart guess about why would be, People died from the fighting in the war, where a wacky guess would be, All of those people moved away to Antarctica.

Essentially, we’re talking about inferences. Situations where information is not explicitly stated, but you use your prior knowledge plus situational information to make a guess about what’s going on. We do this all the time and don’t think twice about it. Our kids have a much harder time with it step-by-step, let alone automatically.

In my sessions with Nellie, we talk about this constantly. So, when we do reading comprehension practice, we talk about making smart guesses by looking back to the text. When we do social inferencing activities, we talk about making smart guesses to figure out what someone is thinking. We’ve been talking about this for years.

Nellie is obsessed with Minecraft – and she’s good at it. She has her own server, she has responsibility within the game, she is successful and happy when playing it; it’s something that makes her shine. Given the option, she would talk about it for our entire session. She has explained to me that in Minecraft there are rankings, and terms for the levels of players. She is considered a “Pro” – professional. Players who have just started playing, and don’t really know what they’re doing, are considered “Noobs” in Minecraft (“newbies”). Sometimes the “noobs” are spotted easily because they do things that others wouldn’t do – like make a house out of dirt (a very weak material), whereas the “pros” are noticed for using stronger materials and better strategies. She explained how a Noob is someone who just doesn’t know how to do it yet, and a Pro knows the techniques and strategies.

So one day, I forget the context, but we were talking about something unexpected, and I was trying to explain why it’s a wacky thing to do, and Nellie just looked at me and said, “That’s such a NOOB thing to do.”

Boom. Lightbulb. It clicked.

From then on, I switched my language, and she took to it immediately. Everything we did, we talked about the Pro way to do it and the Noob way to do it. Nellie is someone who continues to work on matching reaction size to the size of the problem. She’s a kid who might get grumpy about not going first, despite the fact that she’s almost in high school. She might have a huge reaction if someone bumps into her in the hall. She’s LOVES the silly 911 script. We added to it by saying that having a huge reaction to a small problem (like when our printer didn’t work the other day) would be a Noob thing to do, and a Pro reaction would be to just say, oh, well.

When we do our reading comprehension work now, Nellie makes Pro guesses, not Noob guesses.

When we work with another student, we talk about how making unexpected/odd comments in the middle of the conversation is a Noob thing to do, and a Pro thing to do is hold those thoughts in her thought bubble.

More often than not, she’s the one bringing it up, not me.

She laughs and laughs each time she gets to say, “That’s a NOOB thing to do!” And it’s working. She’ll sometimes see me in the hall and quickly tell me something Noob or Pro that happened.

Our kids always, ALWAYS have a way of learning, a way of making sense of what’s going on. Sometimes they’re the ones that teach us the best way to do it. I never would’ve thought of using Pro vs. Noob terminology – and honestly, if it had been my idea, it probably wouldn’t have worked. This is why following their lead is the way to go. This is why we use their special interests. This is why we build on their scripts. This is why we meet them halfway. This.

The brain and the heart

[Written last week]

Today I was doing a lesson with one of my speech and language groups about nonverbal communication. We were identifying the “clues” that can help you figure out what a person might be thinking or feeling. We talked about what eyes can do (look up, look sideways, be open, squint), nose, mouth, and eyebrows. We talked about how hands can point and make gestures, how shoulders can shrug.

Then a student suggested, “What about your heart?” (In the Social Thinking curriculum that we use, we often talk about how we listen with our whole bodies – including our hearts).

I smiled, and told her, “Our hearts help us know how WE are feeling. But can we look at someone’s heart and know how they’re feeling?”

She shook her head and said she understood what I was saying.

A boy in the group, who had been fiddling with the ipad he was using, tapping his pencil, and seemingly not paying attention at all, turned to us and said, “Wait a minute. Your heart doesn’t tell you how you’re feeling. Your brain does.”

“No,” the girl replied. “Your heart feels the feelings.”

“Not for me,” the boy said. “Technically your brain tells you everything, it’s the only part of your body that can think.”

The third student in the class chimed in, with, “For me, they work as a team. My brain thinks and my brain feels and they work together.”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” the boy responded. “But for me it’s usually my brain. My brain tells me what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking.”

“I think it’s both for me, too,” the first girl added. “Like, I know that my brain thinks, but sometimes I do more thinking and sometimes I do more feeling.”

They all looked at me.

I was (obviously) trying not to tear up.

“I think that you are all so smart and insightful and have such good thoughts and ideas,” I unhelpfully said, as they wanted an answer.

“There isn’t a right or wrong answer. We have a heart and we have a brain, and for some people one works more often than the other, and for some people they’re an equal team. For me, they take turns. Sometimes I listen to one more than the other, sometimes I need to remind them to work together.” I told them.

And as kids do?

They nodded, satisfied, and moved right on.

Because it’s that complicated – but it’s that easy, all the same.

Playing with the animals

Polly and I had about ten minutes left in our session today. She had worked so hard, keeping her brain focused, keeping the sillies in her thought bubble, and staying positive, that I gave her the choice of what she’d like to do.

“The animals!” she exclaimed, pointing up.

Do any of you remember those “Critter Counters” that Lakeshore Learning used to sell? It’s a container of rubber farm animals. There are two big and two small of each kind of animal, in each color, and my kids are in love with them.

I got out the animals and we dumped them out, and she got right to work.

“Okay,” she declared. “Come on guys, we need to get in our lines.” She narrated as she went along, and I happily listened, knowing that the presence of pretend play is anything but insignificant. So many of my kids never engaged in pretend play during “typical” developmental time – they just weren’t there yet. So it doesn’t matter how old they are now – if now’s the time, now’s the time. Let’s play.

“Where should I go?” she had a piggy ask. “Over here! Come on, you can go right behind me,” said the Mama pig.

She lined them all up in their respective groups, making sure that each line had a “Team Leader” (a grown-up animal) in the front. Animals frequently seemed to not know where to go, and other animals were very helpful in telling them which line was theirs.

The animals encountered a few problems as they lined up. “Did you just push me?!” Polly made a duck ask. “No!” the sheep replied. “I think you did,” the duck retorted. “I think you bullied me.” Then Polly looked up at me.

“Who could help?” I asked. She brought over a grown-up animal, who said, “I think it was an accident. It wasn’t bullying.”

The animals are talking to each other. They are problem-solving. This is not insignificant. This is Polly learning, and processing, and applying.

After a few more minutes of various line groupings, and discussions among the animals, I regretfully told her, Polly, we’ll need to clean up in one minute. It’s almost time for lunch.”

At first she had the animals hop or gallop back into their container. But then, she seemed to make a decision, sighed, and grabbed handfuls of them, throwing them back in.

“They’re back to normal,” Polly told me.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked, curious.

“They’re just toys now. They’re not alive anymore.” She said sadly.

I was fascinated. Speechless.

Not only did Polly, a 10 and a half-year old, engage in some seriously awesome pretend play, not only did she use language and perspective-taking to have the animals talk, not only did she demonstrate an understanding of problem-solving, BUT she demonstrated an understanding of what pretend play is. Polly knew that toys can be two things – real in her head sometimes, but also, ultimately, just toys.

I think tomorrow, we’ll play some more.

Bio Poems

I was out sick yesterday, and another therapist worked with many of my therapy groups. She did a fun, creative, describing activity, called “Bio Poems” – and reading them warmed my heart so much that I just had to share. These are all done by 6-8th graders, all with language and learning disabilities. They did a few pre-writing steps with writing templates and prompts for each line, but otherwise? These are their own ideas, their own words, with nothing changed (except names!). I laughed, teared up, and had my heart melted as I read these – it’s such a powerful experience to see how these incredible kids view themselves, and what their inner workings are like. I hope you enjoy.

Who is creative, kind, and smart
Who enjoys Max Ride, math, YouTube,One Direction, tv, iPad, iPhone, pools beaches
Who is able to flexible thumbs, swim really fast, sing, act, dance
Who feels joyful playing on my iPad and happy reading my book
Who wonders what will happen next
Who fears when my mom is mad and the dark
Who cares about family, friends,cats school, books, stuff animals, necklace
Who dreams of being a famous vet/mom and meeting 1D

Who is Smart , Talkitive , Sweet
Who enjoys Playing sports , Playing with Sibilings , Drawing and
Who is able to play soccer , Draw and Color
Who feels happy when I play with my brother
Who wonders what is out there in space
Who fears Thunderstorms
Who cares about Faimly and pets
Who dreams of About being a baker or a cook

Who is cool, kind, smart
Who enjoys video games
Who is able to beat video games easily
Who feels lazy when playing with friends
Who wonders how we got here
Who fears the end of the world
Who cares about the world of nature
Who dreams of being really cool

Nice, fun, pretty
Who enjoys playing Minecraft
Who is able to do gymnastics
Who feels happy when I play Minecraft
Who fears big scary sharks
Who care about my family and friends
Who dreams of flying in the sky

Who is athletic, creative, nice
Who enjoys six flags, friends, drawing
Who is able to watch movies, go to school, play basketball
Who feels happy, loving, funny
Who wonders what I’m going to do when I grow up
Who fears spiders, reading in front of people, the dark
Who care about friends and family and animals
Who dreams to have a great rest of my life!

Who is happy, kind, creative
Who enjoys tennis, yoga, baking
Who is able to biking, swimming, yoga
Who feels nervous, happy, shy
Who wonders what I am going to do as a future job
Who fears presenting in front of the class
Who cares about family, friends
Who dreams of to be famous some day

The goal of the assignment

On nearly every evaluation that I write, in nearly every IEP meeting that I attend, I talk about that phrase: the goal of the assignment.

Imagine that you are being taught how to juggle. You are taught the movement with your hands and the pattern. “Now,” they tell you, “we’re going to practice.” During your practice, they keep reminding you about the order of your arms and where to throw the balls. But they keep telling you to do other things, too. “Come on,” they say. “You need to be balancing on one foot the entire time.” When you try to balance, you drop all the balls. They remind you again of the order. “Don’t forget to smile,” they tell you. “You need to be smiling while you’re balancing and juggling.” You try to smile but then you can’t balance and you certainly can’t juggle. In fact, you can’t do anything right. You leave feeling defeated.

That is how our kids feel at school. Once they start to learn one skill, they are quickly asked to do it in conjunction with other skills – none of which they are confident and proficient in on their own, let alone combined.

During testing, both formal and informal, nearly every single one of my kids comes out the same way: when comprehension is measured without the addition of decoding demands, they show a higher comprehension level.

An explanation:

The kids I work with have language and learning challenges. Many of them have a language disorder, many of them have dyslexia or other reading disorders. I have an 8th grader who comprehends at a 2nd grade level, and many of our 4th graders are still learning sounds that make up digraphs and trigraphs (-dge, ch-). Amidst their learning what the letters sound like, what the sound combinations are, they are also practicing comprehension – understanding what the words mean. And, without question, this is where the breakdown occurs.

Imagine you are an English speaker, learning Hebrew. You have learned the symbols and letters and sometimes remember a few sight words: animals, colors, clothing. Now, you are given a paragraph. I can do this, you think to yourself. You spend every ounce of brain energy remembering the letters, sounding out the consonants and vowels, putting the sounds together, word after word after word. You read the entire thing. Yes! I did it. Then your teacher smiles, and says, “Okay, great reading. Now, we are going to answer some comprehension questions about what you read.” What? you think to yourself. I have no idea what that meant. You go through it a second time. You blend consonants and vowels. You sometimes forget how to pronounce a letter and get corrected. You have a word done. Oh, you think to yourself.  I don’t even know what that word means. You try to re-read it, seeing if it’ll jog your memory, but you have to just sound it out all over again. You think it means “dog.” You get to the next word. It takes you so long to sound it out correctly that, you’ve forgotten what the word before it meant.

You’re exhausted. You’re defeated. You feel stupid and unsuccessful.

This is what happens to my kids. Whenever possible, the goal of the assignment needs to be determined, I write in my evaluation reports. If the goal is decoding [sounding out words, blending sounds together], Jen should work on such skills without being asked to comprehend. If the goal is comprehension [making meaning/demonstrating understanding of a piece of text], Jen should have access to text-to-speech, or have a teacher/parent read the text to her, effectively bypassing her decoding deficits and truly focusing in on what she can comprehend. If decoding and comprehension are worked on simultaneously, Jen will likely demonstrate a lower level of comprehension, as all of her energy will be spent decoding.

So, I will continue to recommend, suggest, encourage: determine the goal of the assignment.

If the goal is neatness of handwriting, ignore incorrect spelling.

If the goal is comprehension, read the text to them.

If the goal is expression of ideas, let them say their answers aloud instead of writing.

If the goal is juggling, ignore their posture.

Determine the goal.

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