The Goldilocks Principle

GoldilocksI had the rare opportunity last week to actually sit down and eat lunch with two of my favorite SLPs I work with, and we problem solved about different communication challenges that our students are struggling with (we SLPs know how to have a good time, don’t we?!).  One topic that seems to come up over and over again is helping students (and sometimes adults) find a balance in conversation between too much information and too little information.  You know, the kinds of conversation when you ask an innocent question and the person goes on and on for ten minutes telling you EVERYTHING they know about that topic?  Or how about the sound of crickets chirping when you ask another person the same question, and you get a one word response? How can we help them find the right amount of information to share-not too much, not too little, just right?

This is a pretty high level skill, so make sure you are addressing the foundational pieces first:

  • how to read non-verbal clues (facial expression, body language)
  • asking a question versus making a comment
  • turn taking in conversation
  • judging the right time to ask or respond to questions
  • tone of voice
  • context (does the other person know what I am talking about?  Do I need to give them some clues?)
  • asking for clarification if you don’t understand what the person is asking you
  • orienting my body towards the listener/speaker and looking at them to monitor their responses

I created this free visual on TeachersPayTeachers to help your students here: how much information is enough?  It’s in a PDF format, so you can print it without using Boardmaker.  It would make a fantastic poster for a classroom or to use as a visual to create a lesson for your students!  This is not just a special education or ASD issue by the way, conversational competency is critical for ALL of our students and strong oral communication is a life skill.

What have you tried when teaching students to gauge how much is enough?

How to be a tightrope walker.



Have you ever watched someone walk a tightrope at a circus or on TV, like Nick Wallenda’s Grand Canyon adventure?   It is a tedious, breath holding process to behold!!  This image came to mind when watching a young lady with ASD navigate the treacherous waters of having a conversation with a new classmate.  She wants to have friends and has been working very,very hard at figuring out all the moving parts to a conversation, both verbal and non-verbal.  I imagine the practice and dissection of conversational skills in speech therapy is like working with a net when you first learn to walk on a tightrope.  You wobble and try to correct missteps, but have the comfort of knowing that if you fall, you are safe. Something (or someone) is there to catch you and help you try again.  But conversations with peers on your own?  That is like walking the Grand Canyon without a net.

For students who do not have social language impairments, they almost effortlessly glide across the conversational ropes, maintaining topics, eye contact, body proximity, tone of voice and humor without even thinking about it.  They learned these skills incidentally and don’t have to think about the moving parts of talking to people and making friends. That’s not to say that these students don’t make mistakes, we all do!  The difference is they can learn and apply these subtle social rules in the moment.  This particular young lady I mentioned has tried to make new friends before.  Her first attempt started with “I know you are new here, but I just want to tell you, you don’t want to make me mad.  I can get very, very mad.”   The new student just stared back at her, not really knowing what to say.

In talking with the young lady later, her thought process was preventative; if I tell a new friend that I can get mad, I am doing them a favor!  Then they will know how to act around me and we will get along great!  She did not recognize that she was being perceived as threatening and sending signals that she is probably not someone you would want to hang around with.  For younger students, I love the book You Will Be My Friend  by Peter Brown.  It offers a good conversation about how the main character wants friends, and the many wrong ways she tries to find one (spoiler:there’s a happy ending).  I have created a lesson to go along with the book here.  For older students, video clips are great examples of friendships.  I love Ned’s Declassified from Nickelodeon.  Here’s a link to an episode on what makes a good/bad friend.  It’s about 12 minutes long, so view it and mark different sections to use.  You can develop a whole month’s lesson plan from this one show!

It’s important to remember that friendship is a high level skill.  We have to focus on breaking down all the conversational pieces needed to succeed and teach them systematically, prior to attempting free range social interactions.  To use the tightrope analogy again, you walk a short rope, low to the ground when you start, not a mile long rope across two skyscrapers on a windy day!  I happened to run into the young lady this week that I mentioned earlier.  She and I had a short conversation in the hallway and she checked in visually with me, demonstrated some new turn taking skills,  and monitored her affect, tone of voice and volume beautifully!  She is still working on maintaining topic (she turned the conversation towards Minecraft, her favorite) but she didn’t fall off the rope, just wobbled a bit.  She is figuring out how to navigate the social world, one step at a time.

That’s not my job…or is it?

Tip of the Iceberg


Speech therapists have worn many hats over the years in a school setting.   It always amazes me when someone finds out the scope of our practice includes language, syntax, AT, phonological awareness, listening comprehension, oral expression, executive function, social communication AND articulation.  They usually respond, “I thought you just taught kids to say /s/ and play games.”  Ouch.  That being said, we need to do a better job integrating our services into the school environment beyond our speech closets classrooms.  Not to toot our own horn, but to demonstrate to our colleagues how we can partner with our teachers and support staff, ultimately benefiting our students.  I talked about this with connecting language and literacy in all academic settings here .

Working with students who have social language impairments is a brave new world for many slps and teachers.   Often times we focus on the behavior issues and not the underlying reasons/deficits that may be causing them,  because the behavior is the what the teacher sees as the most pressing concern in the moment. However, the behavior is really only the tip of the iceberg.  The TEACCH model out of UNC gives a great example of this visual here:


What is often happening is once a team figures out what else might be going on with a student, or the family shares a medical diagnosis such as ADD or ASD, the next question is who is going to address these deficit areas?   Speech language therapists (SLPS) are often the first line of therapeutic intervention, and as a whole, we often take on more than we should.  We need to also consider that while the student may have a medical diagnosis, in the school setting we need to carefully and thoroughly evaluate the child as a team and determine if their diagnosis is impacting them socially and/or academically.  This is not always the case, so it shouldn’t be assumed that a diagnosis=eligibility for services. The medical/private model does not have the eligibility paradigms present in school. This is often a cause of frustration for parents and the team needs to be sensitive to them and have open dialogue with families to address these concerns.  Everyone needs to be working towards the best outcome for the student.

With social language impairments (and the behaviors that often are embedded), the SLP is a critical team member, but not the whole team. If a student does need support with social communication skills, they need to be taught, practiced and generalized beyond the walls of the speech room.  A one on one therapy session with an adult is not a natural social language environment.  For many kids who have been in therapy since they could walk, they figure out that adults will modify their own behaviors and language around the child’s deficits.  Peers don’t do this.

A good social language plan for most students (not all) with social language impairments is a combination of learning strategies, developing self monitoring tools and then having opportunities to practice these skills with their peers.  The team to support the student includes teachers, peers, SLPs, OTs, administration in the schools, counselors, and families.   It’s great if a student can talk about what they should do in a socially challenging moment within a speech therapy session, however, if they cannot try it and apply it in real-time with their classmates, it isn’t really that beneficial.  It’s only the tip of the iceberg.