This time of year is the perfect storm. IEP season is in full swing, Spring break is just around the corner (woohoo) and everyone is feeling a bit squirmy and squirrelly (including the SLP). I like to have a variety of therapy options to keep my kids engaged, but my budget is tight right now. I looked in my magic cabinet of therapy materials to see what I could add to my bag of tricks that wouldn’t elicit groans of “no, not that.” I spotted a shiny metal box that contained a 30 piece Star Wars themed puzzle and knew I hit the jackpot!
Really, a puzzle? You put it together and it’s done, boring. Well, yes, it can be if you use it exactly like that. How about using the puzzle pieces as a therapy activity to work on gestalt thinking with your social learners? Show a piece at a time (without showing a picture of the final product) and have them make smart guesses as to what the puzzle might be. Have any friends that focus on the unimportant details and miss the big picture? Me too, and this is harder for them than you would think! Add in a little group work razzle dazzle and your students will be working together to problem solve putting the picture together (without a model). You are embedding the Social Thinking® concepts of turn taking, sharing personal space, regulating emotions (when the pieces don’t fit quite right), thinking with your eyes and sticking with a group plan!
Working on non-verbal skills? Have your students put the puzzle together without talking. They have to watch each other, use gestures and pay attention to cues that it’s their turn to put their puzzle piece in. For our students with impulsivity or difficulty with emotional regulation, this might be challenging! Start with short, easy puzzles to help them feel successful and build resilience in these skills.
With younger students or students working at an early social cognitive level, you can use wooden puzzles with several pieces. I use the puzzle pieces as a template to cut out pictures from magazines or google images that fit a theme. For example, I might cut out pictures of candy, pumpkins, costumes, October on a calendar and a bat. Then I ask the students to take turns removing the puzzle pieces to reveal the clues and make a guess as to what all these pictures are talking about (Halloween). You can scaffold the picture clues from easy to more difficult as they develop this skill.
Reinforce conversational turn taking by giving each student a few puzzle pieces, with you providing a topic of discussion. As each student adds a comment or connected question to the conversation, they get to add a piece of the puzzle. Start with large piece puzzles at first (8-10 pieces) and as your students get the hang of this, add more pieces and change topics within the conversation. You could also choose puzzles that are areas of high interest for your students (Star Wars, Super Mario Brothers, Legos, Dinosaurs) and use the puzzle pieces as reinforcers for maintaining topic during therapy. They earn a piece of the puzzle each time you catch them keeping their brain in the group (or whatever social concept you are working on that day). If you can’t find a puzzle that matches an area of interest (guinea pigs, for example) just find a google image of said interest, print, laminate and cut into puzzle pieces, voila’! Make sure you leave a few minutes at the end of the session for the student to put the puzzle together.
Do you use puzzles in social language therapy? Share your ideas here!
We had our Best Practices GOSSLP conference for school based SLPs in Georgia last week. It is a conference I look forward to for many reasons, including meeting new friends like the great OTs who created Lucy the Lap Dog , catching up with old speechie friends that I don’t get to see very often and the great speakers the conference brings. I went to hear Terri Rossman speak on Zones of Regulation, Sarah Ward talk about executive function skills and Julie Weatherly discuss special education law (that will keep you up late at night!!). These courses offered great table discussions during lunch among my fellow SLPs!
One of my takeaways was the seemingly increasing need of our students, particularly the students that I see with social language impairments, for self-regulation and calming strategies. One of my colleagues in our county is establishing mindfulness classes for both the students and the staff at her middle school! She has done a lot of training on her own and like me, sees an increase in the stress and anxiety levels in our students and our peers. I think it’s the teach to the mandated test culture, social media pressure and the message to “do more/be more” that we are inundated with in our world today. I feel it as an adult, do you?
So with this in mind, I stumbled across an app called Calm (it’s available on iPhone and Android). While the app is free, there are paid options within the app that you can choose as well. Some of the free features include a visual breathing circle, seven days of calm meditation program, soothing visuals and sounds of nature, and sleep stories for bedtime (for adults and children) that are read in a calm voice. The app is easy to navigate and has good explanations of each feature. It is packed full of great options that are useful in a variety of settings, to help provide an external cue for self calming.
I had the opportunity to try the app with one of my little after-school friends. He was in the “yellow zone” during our session and was a giggly, wiggly mess last week! We have been working on whole body listening but those cues and visuals were not enough. So, I popped up the app on my phone, showed him the breathing circle and we did this together for a few minutes. He did calm down enough to attend to our activities and regulate back to the green zone for a little while before we needed to get up and MOVE to get the wiggles out. There isn’t a one size fits all therapy tool that works all the time with all of my kids, but this app is a nice addition to my skill set. I may just use it myself the next time I am stuck in two hours of Atlanta gridlock!
What other apps do you use to target calming, reducing anxiety or self-regulation skills? Share here!
I follow several Facebook speech language pathology groups and have seen over the past few weeks many threads of discussion debating how we discern social language impairments from “just” behavior in our students. It’s a question I get often from my SLP peers during my social language trainings and from my CFs too. I will say right up front that I don’t have a magic checklist or one determining factor that will help answer this question quickly and definitively (sorry). But don’t give up hope just yet as there are tools we can use to help better understand this chicken vs. egg process!
When students are referred to the RTI process in my school system, often the reason is that something has happened (usually multiple somethings), making the student stand out from their peers. The teacher is usually quite frustrated and concerned that their usual bag of tricks isn’t working with this particular student. The first step is to collect information and observe the child not only in the classroom, but less structured environments such as recess, lunch and transition times during their day. Often our kids with behavior issues AND social language impairments hold it together better in highly structured environments and have more difficulty in free range settings, like the hallway or playground.
Talk to the teachers who see this child on a daily basis. Next, ask questions about what the concerns are and what is happening both before and after the situations they are concerned about with the student. It is basically doing a bit of ABC (antecedent,behavior, consequence) analysis, which is very helpful in teasing apart this issue. We also ask our teachers and parents to fill out a social language checklist AND a behavior checklist as part of our RTI process. It is not unusual for the parents to report a very different child at home. There are far fewer structured social expectations at home than during the school day, and families naturally adjust their behaviors, supports and reinforcements to keep the peace in the home.
It’s always interesting to me to look at the information and see if the student is consistent in their behaviors or inconsistent. If the student is cursing at only one teacher who constantly sets them off but not anyone else, then it may be a setting (or person) specific behavior. Can they pick and choose where and when they are using the spoken and hidden rules of school? That is another clue that it may be a behavior and not necessarily a social language impairment. Our students with social language impairments are fairly consistent in not understanding or being able to apply social rules, especially the hidden ones!!
The occupational therapist (OT), counselor,teachers and parents need to all be part of solving this equation as well. We need to tease out the underlying pieces that may also be contributing to what we are seeing in the classroom. Is it difficulty with sensory or emotional regulation? Is it significant anxiety? Is it a mood disorder or attention/impulse control weakness? Is the child getting any positive behavior rewards? It’s easy to get caught in the “No David” cycle with tough kids, so we need to really try hard to catch them being good and reinforce the heck out of those moments! Are we reinforcing negative behaviors by giving them attention? Both positive and negative attention from an adult can inadvertently feed the attention monster! Are the behaviors working to help the student escape a non-preferred activity? We once had a student that was a runner. The administrators decided that having the student hang out with the principal and play on her ipad after he ran away was a good calming tool for him. Ummmmm, nope. It was totally a POSITIVE reinforcer to chat with adults and play before heading back to class. Needless to say, it was not an effective deterrent.
Chaos in the classroom is not the friend of any student, but especially our students with social language impairments or emotional-behavioral challenges! Is there a clearly defined, positive reinforcement behavior system set up for the class and does the student understand it? What works for one doesn’t always work for all. As I tell families that I work with, when we start to put a plan in place to address a behavior, that behavior often gets worse before it gets better. Teachers and parents will throw up their hands and say it’s not working about two weeks in when this happens, but really the plan just needs a little more time. The kids are trying to figure out how far they can push things before the boundary or rule changes, so they up their game before understanding that it won’t change (it’s called an extinction burst in ABA terms).
Are there visual supports in the classroom for transition and work stations? Less language and clear, consistent directives work for both social language impairments and behaviors. Truly, this is best practice and works well with most kids. Do the adults try to reason and talk to the student in the midst of a meltdown? This often just makes our kids even more overwhelmed and upset, so wait until a calm moment after the event to talk it through. As students get older, we need to help them integrate calming and regulating strategies from external sources (parents, teachers, environments) to internal strategies (deep breathing, taking a walk, journaling). Implementing The Incredible Five Point Scale and The Zones of Regulation curriculums in general education classrooms are genius tools to teach these life skills to all students (and it aligns with PBIS beautifully).
Ultimately, we need to remember that identifying the label isn’t really the goal of this process. Behavior and social language are often tightly intertwined. The goal is figuring out how we serve the student with the appropriate level of support to be successful academically AND emotionally in school (and in life). This can be in the special education setting and/or the general education setting. Many of my students who are served through an EBD classroom also have social language impairments and many of my students with social language impairments also have behaviors! We don’t “fix” these students, we provide strategies and supports to help them figure out how to function in a social world more successfully. This is not a quick process and in some circumstances, it is life long work. Lastly, it should NOT fall on just the SLP to be the only go to person in the building to figure out these friends or to provide services. It has to be a team approach to be successful and has to begin in the general education setting way before the student enters special education!
Share your thoughts here on how you discern behavior vs. social language impairment…
The Buddy Bench has been in the news for a while, but if you missed it, here’s the gist. A special bench (the “Buddy Bench”) is designated on the playground for kids to sit on if they don’t have someone to play with. It is a signal to others that they should come and ask that child to play. I first heard about this idea on the news, when they picked up a story about a little boy named Christian (you can read his story HERE ) and his idea. There is an entire website (www.buddybench.org) with ideas, a teaching video and a buddy blog with stories of the benches around the world.
My school installed one of these benches on our playground, but I heard one of the students say that he sat there, but no one asked him to play. My heart hurt for him and I started thinking about why that may have happened. Many of my friends with social language impairments struggle with the unstructured time at recess. Too many hidden rules, social anxiety with initiating conversation or play, and the fast pace of social interaction outside are all hurdles that make it easier to wander around the periphery of the playground alone. And just like any new concept in school, the kids have to be taught the rule of how to use the bench.
It made me so happy to walk down the hall a few weeks later and see that our counselor, Christina, had made a bulletin board (see pictures below) to do just that! She had the kids make mini-posters of how to use the bench and even social scripts on what to say and do! The information that I read about the bench also encourages schools to designate peer mentors (aka play pals) who will watch for kids on the bench and actively include them. This is a strictly voluntary job, but oh how it warms my heart to see so many kids have empathy for others! In an increasingly academic focused environment, it is nice to see kindness and inclusion being fostered as well.
I love this teaching video and this one to share with a class, and prep the kids on how to use the Buddy Bench. These videos really function as social teaching stories (and can be shared at home with families for carryover). How great would these be in a public park to generalize a skill taught in school? If you’ll excuse me, I think I need to call our local Parks and Recreation department and invite our Mayor to propose we do just that!
Does your school have Buddy Benches and if so how are they being introduced?