Watch your tone!

3x3 blog pic tone of voice

Voice is an area of communication that I have really had to step up my game recently. Many of my students with autism spectrum disorders struggle with the subtleties of understanding that it’s not just the words they say, but how they say them, that convey meaning.  I love using videos to teach many social concepts and tone of voice is one of these areas, but I also needed some step by step materials to explain the why of this skill. Have you had any friends that speak like a robot or a cartoon character, or use a loud, angry tone of voice all the time (even when they weren’t mad)?  Me too!

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I ended up making what I needed after looking around for months, and voila’, Voxbots (get it?) was born and you can find it in my TPT store!  I tend to be a linear thinker and know that my kids need to understand the steps and the why before we can practice and start to change these skills.   I begin with teaching cards to describe each clue we need to consider, in order to determine the right tone of voice. These clues include matching emotion to words, reading body language and facial expressions, determining the right place, time and people, and adjusting our volume, speed and inflection.  It always amazes me when I break down a skill, how complex each one is and how neurotypical brains work effortlessly when we communicate.  It also helps me understand and empathize at how hard these skills are for my students with social language deficits!

I then have task cards for each of the clue areas to practice the skills.  After we get the instructional understanding down in therapy, I give homework using a checklist of what to look for. I ask them to observe the clues in real time at home, across people and settings.  We also use video clips to look for the clues and to see if the tone of voice matches what is going on in the movie or commercial (you can look through my Pinterest board for social video clips HERE ).  Using an ipad or iphone to record the students is another great idea to generalize the skill. My students often have the most difficult time watching themselves, so I save this practice until last.  Remember, social communication in real time is a very fast moving, complex skill for all of us.  This is not a once and done lesson.  You may scaffold the skills over several weeks and then re-visit them throughout the year in therapy to probe for generalization or to see where the kids are missing clues.  You can even create a bulletin board with their Voxbots as a visual cue in the classroom or send them home as a reminder for carryover.

How do you teach tone of voice skills in therapy?  Share here!

What’s a Popplet?

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It sounds like a cute Saturday morning cartoon character or a yummy pastry, but Popplet is actually an interactive graphic organizer app! It’s available on itunes but I am lucky enough to have it as part of my Office 365 suite on my school computer!  This app is described on their  website : “In the classroom and at home, students use Popplet for learning. Used as a mind-map, Popplet helps students think and learn visually. Students can capture facts, thoughts, and images and learn to create relationships between them.”  My students, especially my students with social language impairments, ADD and/or executive function impairments, are definitely visual learners! I am too, so here is a link to a youtube video that shows how to build a Popplet organizer.  Here is a link to a fabulous education blog that outlines multiple uses for Popplet in school with a great step by step tutorial.   One of my SLPeeps (thanks Joy!) introduced me to this in a presentation recently and my mind jumped right to social language concepts (I know, it’s an obsession)!

popplet screen shot

How cool would this be to use for social mapping?  You could add a picture of the problem scenario in the middle (or even have the students role play problems and take actual pictures of them to use with the app).  Then, use the organizer to build out expected/unexpected pathways (you can color code them too) and tease out how their choices impact how others think and feel.  If your students have tablets in your school system as ours do, you can push out the Popplet to them individually and they have an immediate visual social map to refer to.

What about our friends who have difficulty with group work?  Building a Popplet together might be more enticing to my students who love technology and sneak in some collaborative learning skills at the same time in the therapy setting or in the classroom!  I can see this being used to work on expanding social language concepts such as perspective taking using a graphic organizer, connecting the concepts of think/say/feel and even linking shades of emotions using Popplet.  I want to try it out and have my kids look at a picture in the middle, then identify and connect the clues they see in order to make a smart guess!   It would be fantastic to be able to print a screenshot and blow it up to poster size to refer to in your therapy room or classroom too.

I am excited to try out this new therapy tool and see how it goes.  Have you used Popplet? Please share your thoughts here.  If not, how would you use it for social language therapy?

How to grow perspective taking skills…

3x3 blog pic pov flower cover

Working on perspective taking skills and point of view can be tricky for my students.  It is not an easy social language concept to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and think about how they might feel.  This is a skill that is embedded in both the academic curriculum as well as in real life social interactions!  With Spring in full swing here, I printed these fabulous flower templates from Tracee Orman’s template packet that I have, but you could freestyle your own flower templates too.  My social thinking groups came up with different problem scenarios and wrote one in the middle of each template.  Next, we decided who the people are that would be part of the scenario and write them on the back of the petals (see picture below).  After that, we flipped the flower back to the front and on each petal, wrote what the person might be thinking or feeling based on their point of view in the scenario.

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You can also work this social activity backwards and write the perspectives on the petals and have the students come up with a matching problem.  You could also have them  identify who might be thinking or feeling the thoughts written on each petal by making smart guesses (inferencing).  When your flowers are finished, this would make a great Spring themed social thinking bulletin board too!

How do you work on perspective taking skills?  Share here!

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…

3x3 blog its just behavior

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)!

Social Thinking Social Learning Tree Poster.png

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.