Puzzle it out.

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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!

 

 

 

Calm, there’s an app for that!

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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!

It’s just behavior…

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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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Slow and Steady…

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I happened to see this little snail moving along at its own pace, determined to get wherever it was going and not following a straight path.  It’s a fair representation of social language therapy from my experience.  Social language development isn’t like any other developmental acquisition timeline, such as language, articulation or gross motor skills. It doesn’t scaffold skills vertically like other areas of communication, one building upon another, leading to proficiency. I think that is part of the reason that it’s so difficult for parents, teachers and therapists to get a handle on what social language therapy is (and isn’t).

The students that I work with often have several preliminary diagnosis before they are identified as having a social language disorder (usually adhd, anxiety, or language delay). These diagnosis can and often do exist right along with social language deficits. Some of my students also have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, most often at the high end of the spectrum.  They tend to be identified later for social language intervention, as typically their academic grades are fantastic.  It is when behaviors start to occur that make these students stand out from their peers, that a referral is urgently made.    When I test these students (some as early as K-1, others not until high school), I find it’s really important to provide some good background knowledge on what social language skills are, and what the goal of therapy is for this student, to the family and the team working with them.  I love this visual of Social Thinking’s ® Social Learning Tree to help me explain the scope and sequence of social learning visually.  So many families will say their goal for therapy is  that they want their child to have friends, but there are so many prerequisite skills that need to be addressed before they are able to develop successful friendships (a very high level social competency)!

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A critical piece of this discussion is talking about how social skills are developing at each level of the tree (roots to leaves) but that students don’t necessarily move upwards through all the social levels to higher social competencies, regardless of their age.  This is a difficult conversation but so crucial in starting therapeutic intervention with realistic expectations.  Just as we cannot therapize an increase in IQ , we cannot therapize social cognition to increase beyond the person’s abilities.  What we can do however,  is deepen and broaden the skills, strategies and competencies within the abilities the person does have.  We do this through direct instruction (our kids are not incidental social learners), modeling, practice and lots of feedback.  I try to reinforce the idea that social learning is a life skill, and we need to work on these skills just like we would for sports, music or academics.

This is not a fast process and it’s often hard to understand a person’s perspective, motivation and deep understanding about how they fit and function in the social framework of their life.  It cannot just be the SLP working on these skills.  It has to involve the family, teachers (general ed as well as special ed), school staff, counselors, OT,  and peer mentors (read a great article about this here from Social Thinking).  Moving the skills and strategies from direct instruction in the speech room, to a structured and supportive setting such as a counseling group or small class, and then learning to generalize the skills across people, place and time is the long-term road map.  It may take several years to develop these social skills and successfully demonstrate social competency. There will be stumbles and mistakes, but that’s okay. It’s part of being human and none of us (even neurotypical adults) are perfect at this social life all the time! Social growth and success are possible, but it is slow and steady intervention that wins this race.

Have you Shmooped?

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No, it’s not the latest dating site or an ill-timed bodily function, so what exactly is it?  According to their website,  “Shmoop is a digital publishing company with “a point of view.” We seek to empower and broaden the range and depth of choices students have in life. Our teaching method revolves around the basic notion that learning is often too hard, so we carry gallons of academic WD-40 that we squirt on the tracks whenever we can.” Who doesn’t love academic WD-40????  Shmoop is also a website that is chock full of fabulous curriculum related materials that have social language application!  There is a free version of the site, as well as a paid version, and it has separate offerings for teachers and students. Take a few minutes/hours/days to wander through the site and check out all the resources available to you (click on the picture below to be taken to the magical land of Shmoop….)

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I love the video section ( over 5,000 videos on Shmooptube, of course) that include PBIS and life skills themes, like this one on cheating or this one on balancing interests with friendships.  These are about 2 minutes long and are great opening videos to use in social groups, counseling or speech therapy for middle school on up!

The summary units, like this one for Shakespeare’s  As You Like It,  are also great to use to help my students visualize an overview of the story. I love these “In a Nutshell” video summaries to teach the big picture concepts prior to reading the books.  From historical novels to the deeper meaning of Dr. Seuss books (including this 3 week online unit lovingly called Dr. Shmeuss, ha!), you can find tons of resources to support your students!

Within each unit’s text , you might find little orange-colored pins labeled WTFWhy’s This Funny? (not what you thought, be honest!).  Click on the pin and it explains why a statement is humorous based on context, background knowledge or word play.  For my literal thinkers, this is AWESOME!!  It also defines idioms, great for ELL students and for my literal friends, BONUS!

Along the side of the page, there are tabs for character descriptions, theme discussions, summaries, questions, pictures, flash cards, writing prompts and more!  My own high schooler has used this site often to help break down the often confusing or nebulous themes and vocabulary within literature and has found it extremely helpful.  The students that I work with, who have ASD or language processing impairments, often struggle with the indirect and figurative language concepts in novels.  Shmoop helps to make these concepts clear and direct, with visual supports that help them participate in class discussions more successfully, and better yet, understand the material!  If that’s not academic WD-40, I don’t know what is.

What are some other materials or websites that help your older students understand literature?   Share here!

 

Where have you been all my SLP life?!

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Two of the smartest SLPs I know, Lydia Kopel and Elissa Kilduff, have recently become published authors!  The process to publish IEP Goal Writing for Speech Language Pathologists has been daunting, but our county has had the benefit of being the guinea pigs of the draft version of this fantastic resource!  Now before you roll your eyes and dismiss this as just another goal bank, think again.  This little orange treasure chest takes state common core standards (and the Early Learning Standards for PreK) and aligns them to the associated speech-language skill.  The PreK-12th grade resource includes the communication areas of: vocabulary, questions, summarize, main idea and details, critical thinking, pragmatics (YAY), syntax and morphology and articulation/phonological processes. Then, you look at the associated speech-language skill and it further breaks it down into steps to mastery in each area AND the prerequisites needed!

So what can you do with all of this amazing information?  Well, let me share with you how I have used it! It allows me to look at the grade level common core standards that my students are working on, what area of the core it addresses and the related speech-language skills for each standard.  Then, it also allows me to look at each area of communication (see list above) and the pre-requisite skills needed to achieve a goal.  For example, in the communication area of Summarizing (which is embedded throughout the grade levels in reading/literature/listening/speaking standards):

Skill:  Summarize # of details from a story.

Pre-requisite skills: answer questions, sequence concepts, identify narrative elements, retell, identify important/unimportant details.

This helps me identify the baseline of where my student is functioning with this skill, setting the goal and then being able to see how to scaffold backwards to fill in missing skills if my student isn’t progressing, or scaffold forwards to write higher level goals when they meet the initial one.  It is basically a SLP road map to navigate communication skill acquisition in a logical and sequential manner,  with the bonus of facilitating student success educationally!

There is even a section on Pragmatics (hallelujah!). These skills are a different animal of sorts, because social language acquisition is not necessarily linear. Michelle Garcia Winner notes that social language skills are often broadened across time rather than acquired in a progressive, vertical timeline like other areas of language.  Our students may not move on to higher level skills necessarily, but we can deepen and grow the skills that they do have within that skill set.  I love how this book breaks down the social skills into distinct areas with the embedded skills in each area. This is very helpful in talking with parents (or advocates) during the IEP process along with the visual of the Social Learning Tree from Social Thinking®.  I also share with my teachers, to help them understand what we are working on socially and how it may be related to what they are working on in the classroom.   This is a valuable tool to keep me focused and write specific, measurable goals for my students with social language impairments, an area that is often nebulous as compared to language or articulation.

If you make one purchase for yourself in the new year, consider making it THIS ONE as it will more than pay for itself in giving you a clear, well organized road map to making your goal writing and IEPs easier!  You too will be flipping through the pages saying, “Where have you been all my SLP life?!”

*No money or materials have been provided in exchange for this review.  It is simply my heartfelt endorsement of a fantastic product for SLPs!

 

Celebrating MLK Day with a social language craftivity!

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The life and words of Martin Luther King Jr. are embedded throughout the city of Atlanta (and beyond), where I live.  I love the idea of volunteering to honor his lifelong work by helping others on MLK Jr. Day.   The social challenges that sparked this Pastor’s passion for peace are complex and difficult for some of my students to understand.   With my younger students, I like to focus on the concept of why we should help others.  It fits beautifully into a social thinking framework of taking someone else’s perspective, thinking about how our actions and words make someone else feel and the value of doing something kind for another person, without expecting anything in return.

At first glance, these are pretty big social concepts, right?  However, when you look at Dr. King’s vision and the words of his sermons, you will see the essence of his message is to love and accept other people.  A big part of being able to do this is to be able to think about how other people might feel and think, in relationships to our words and actions.  In order to talk about this concept, we break big picture ideas into scaffolded steps,  like this helping hand wreath.

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I found these great free clip art hands  from Teacher’s Clipart on TPT.   I printed them, cut out the shapes, and then let my kids pick a hand.  Your students can also trace their hands on construction paper and cut them out too for an ink saving version with a fine motor bonus.  Add to the lesson with Readworks , a free website that has many articles at different comprehension levels/grades that help us talk about MLK in the context of history and social change like this second grade passage with great pictures.  It is important to talk about why we honor someone, what that looks like and how helping other people can do this.

Next, I ask the kids to think of a way they can help someone and we talk about the idiom “give someone a hand”.  They can then write or draw how they can help someone on their paper hand.   It doesn’t have to be formal volunteering, it can be as simple as bringing the garbage can in for an elderly neighbor, holding the door open for someone or picking up your room without your mom asking you to do it. The object is for their actions or words to help someone  (and in turn that person will have good thoughts and feelings about them)!  It can even be a “secret mission” as the point is not recognition for a good deed or even telling others what you did, but that doing for others makes us feel good too.  They often come back and share how it went and it is a great time to connect how their actions and words made other people feel.  I hope this activity lights a tiny flame of altruism that they carry throughout their lives and effects positive social change for them too.

How do you teach the bigger concepts of kindness and service?  Share here…