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!

8x8 cover voxbots

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!

Egg-cellent Social Language Ideas!

egg blog cover pic

picture by Eric Britz

We are in the midst of Spring break (yay) and Easter is right around the corner.  I have been seeing lots of posts about targeting articulation and language using plastic eggs, so I thought I would add my two cents on ways to work on social language!   The colored eggs are perfect to work on Zones of Regulation ® with my students too.  The red(pink), yellow, blue and green eggs align to each zone, but just as there are no wrong emotions, there are no wrong colors either, so if you have a few orange, teal or white eggs, no worries. Ask your students to come up with what emotions they think might align with these colors. Don’t be surprised at how creative and insightful they can be!

We also prep by reviewing books or videos as a refresher to what each zone might look like.   I made an interactive book, Calm Down, that I use with my younger elementary friends as part of this prep.  We can then brainstorm ways to calm ourselves down when we are in the red, yellow or even blue zones.   My students can dictate or write down these strategies on pieces of paper and put them into the corresponding colored eggs.

egg blog pic 2


You can put different strategies in any colored egg and have your students choose one, read the strategy and then match it to the zone.   For your students who are comfortable and accurate with these concepts, you can extend this into a “good egg/bad egg” game and have the kids decide if the strategy in the egg is a good solution/expected one or an unexpected strategy.  For example, if you are in a red zone (angry, furious, out of control) and the strategy says to go take a walk and calm down, that’s an expected solution. However, if the strategy says to scream in someone’s face until you feel better, that’s definitely an unexpected solution.  How fun would it be to put the “good eggs” in a basket, and the “bad eggs” in a little trashcan? You can further tease out the social language concepts of consequences and how other people might feel or think about us when we have unexpected reactions.

Have you seen those cute emoji eggs in the dollar stores?  Me too, but if you can’t find them, just make your own with a sharpie!  You can draw different mouths on both sides of the bottom of the shell, different eye and eyebrows on the top of the shell and rotate to get more choices per egg.  You can give your students the chance to draw their own egg emojis and have their peers guess which emotion they drew and identify the clues they used to make those guesses.  Hello non-verbals!  If you give them an emotion, ask your students to identify scenarios that might elicit that emotion (write or draw a picture) and stuff them in the eggs.

You can also fill the eggs with tiny objects or picture clues that all relate to one concept or idea.  For example, a tiny cake, a candle, a ribbon, a deflated balloon=birthday party! This is a fun way to work on gestalt thinking and help our kids connect the details to the big picture ideas.  The quicker or the less clues they need to make a smart guess, the more “points” they earn (it doesn’t have to be a tangible reinforcer, my kids are competitive enough to just want to beat the previous number of guesses)!  I don’t deduct points for a wrong guess, but we do stop and talk about what made them make that guess, and it gives me insight to where the breakdown might be.

Lastly, you can use the eggs and a basket to work on conversation skills.  Each person gets two of the same colored eggs (one gets blue, one gets green, etc..).  I write a CC (connecting comment) or a ? (ask a question) on all of the eggs indicating what the student needs to add, and I tape a picture of the topic on a basket.  We go around the table until all the eggs are in the basket and we have maintained the topic so that everyone has asked a related question and made a connecting comment.  I’ll play too and throw in an off topic comment or ask a totally unrelated question to see if my kids catch me!

I hope you found some egg-cellent ideas to work on social language concepts with your students this Spring!  What are some other ways you use plastic eggs?

Why the Presidential Candidates Might Need A Lunch Bunch…

I was watching the Republican debate the other evening with my 16-year-old son.  About ten minutes into it, he turned to me and said, “I cannot believe that no one has punched Donald Trump in the face.”   After watching Mr. Trump’s posturing, antics and very purposeful lack of social filter, I had to wonder the same thing. Now I don’t believe for a minute that Mr. Trump is unaware of how he perceived or that what he says is unintentionally tactless.  In fact, I think he very purposefully uses his communicative “style” as an attention grabber and knows the value of a shocking sound bite.  His crass act has a communicative function to seek attention and start people talking.  He also knows that his baiting comments and rude body language are going to engage the other candidates and incite emotional responses (interestingly, very much like many of the EBD students I work with).

As a SLP fascinated by social language, I started to watch the non-verbals going on with the candidates:   Dr. Carson using his eyebrows to punctuate his very soft-spoken points, Ted Cruz’s laser eye gaze locked on the camera and not on the people asking the questions, Jeb Bush’s non-aggressive posture, and of course Donald Trump’s direct leaning in towards those he was insulting.  I heard a snippet on the radio the next day by Dr. Patrick Stewart from the University of Arkansas.  He is a political science expert and is a certified Facial Action Coding System coder specializing in reading facial expressions and emotional responses in followers and leaders.

Dr. Stewart looks at several different parts of non-verbal language which he noted accounts for 90% of communicative intent (words are the other 10%).  He stated that non-verbals are how we influence others to do things we want them to do (I love that succinct description).  The areas of non-verbals he analyzes include:  facial expressions (including overt and micro-expressions*), body language, proxemics (how close or far away you are), haptics (touching) and vocalics ( verbal sounds, such as when your mom clears her throat to get your attention).  Micro-expressions are the immediate feeling that shows up on someone’s face, even without them thinking about it, but are usually controlled quickly. Dr. Stewart often reviews video and looks frame by frame to see them, and finds these micro-expressions when the person is not speaking in a debate and the camera is not on  them.  Here is a link to a fascinating research article Dr. Stewart authored on Presidential Speechmaking Style .

I think the debates are a fabulous way to work with older students on reading non-verbal language, identifying emotions and figuring out if what someone is saying matches the context of what they are showing.  Donald Trump is such an over the top persona it might be easier to start with him versus someone more controlled and practiced, like Marco Rubio.  I wrote a blog last Fall about campaign commercials and how to align the study of campaign ads to the common core (7th-12th grade) and questions to use to determine persuasion, bias, point of view, main idea and truth in context HERE.

For your middle or high school students with high functioning ASD, identifying and practicing the areas that Dr. Stewart mentions, facial expressions, body language, proxemics, haptics, vocalics and tone of voice, is like learning a new language.  It’s not learned incidentally, but step by step with a lot of repetition! However, by teaching these skills, the long-term goal is that we are going to help them figure out meaning in communicative context with their peers and gain understanding as to how they are being received based on what they are doing and by what they are saying.

Between the debates and campaign adds to come, you will have enough social language material to last several months.  You could even work with your Social Studies/History teacher to turn this into a collaborative lesson plan!  So search Youtube for video clips, turn off the sound on a debate video and let the students guess what the candidates are feeling.  Have them make note of how they stand, the gestures they use, facial expressions, even the color of their face (Mr. Kasich tended to get very flushed and move a lot when he was frustrated). We have a long Presidential season ahead with many more debates to come. I am looking forward to the gold mine of social language learning that comes with it!!  As for the best candidate for President?  Well, let’s just say that’s up for debate…