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5 Tips on How to Boost Student Engagement in Speech-Language Therapy Sessions

“When you have fun, then you’re more interested in learning.” – Magnus Carlsen

As a pediatric speech-language pathologist I have witnessed first-hand that many rewards that come from working directly with children and their families. However, let’s face it sometimes it can also be challenging. It can be challenging to keep our sessions fun and engaging while simultaneously keeping our student’s motivation high.

Motivation is key to ensure that they are getting enough practice opportunities to make lasting change. But sometimes the things that we are asking our students to do can be hard, after all if it were easy, they would be doing it.

So, how do we find that balance of challenging our students but also keeping our sessions fun? The good news is that you don’t have to change up your entire intervention style to increase your student’s attention and engagement during speech therapy sessions. By using some simple strategies, you will be able to keep those sessions fun and motivating for your students!

In this post, I will share with you 5 tips that have worked for me.

1. Offer choices

2. Add Movement

3. Ensure High Rates of Success

4. Include Sensory Activities

5. Provide Breaks

So, with that, let’s dive right in!

Offer Choices

Think about a time when you were forced to do something that you did not want to do, like having to go grocery shopping. Imagine the same situation with choices. Consider how it feels when you have options, such as choosing a time that is less crowded to shop, choosing curbside pickup, or home delivery. Choices allows us to feel empowered during the decision-making process. Children experience the same positive feelings when they are given choices. Offering choices helps children build autonomy, decision making skills, and motivation during preferred and more importantly, non-preferred activities.

Building choices into your student’s therapy sessions can offer many benefits such as reduction in tantrum behaviors, building confidence, fostering independence, and promoting autonomy. As therapists we often focus on our lesson plans without thinking about how to embed opportunities for choices.

What are some examples of how to incorporate choices into your therapy sessions?

1. Allow your student to choose between activities or materials used within the session.

2. Allow your student to choose the sequence of activities within the session.

3. During activities, give your student a choice of the number of teaching targets within the activity or length of time of the activity, before transitioning to the next activity.

4. Ask your student if they want to try the task by themselves or if they want you to help them.

Add Movement

Often students have been sitting in class or in the car prior to their speech therapy session, only to come in the treatment room to sit some more. When we incorporate movement into our sessions, not only does it facilitate learning, but it also makes our sessions motivating for our students. Movement activities are fun and can take the pressure off “talking.” The good news is that adding physical activity into your sessions doesn’t necessarily mean extra prep time for you or the need to purchase costly materials.

Here are some simple ways to incorporate movement into your sessions:

1. Tape your picture stimuli to the wall and have your student hop over to pull one off and then hop back to where you are seated to practice their target.

2. Using painters’ tape, tape a hopscotch grid on the floor and place your stimuli in each box of the hopscotch grid. Have your student practice the target that is inside the box they land on.

3. Play ball. If you have access to a basketball hoop great, but if not simply toss, roll, or bounce a ball back and forth after each practice trial.

4. Create a scavenger hunt by hiding materials in your treatment room and then have your student find them.

5. Use a scooter board. You can place treatment materials around your therapy room or down the hall and have your student scoot themselves around to collect those items.

Ensure High Rates of Success

While learning something new can be fun, it can also be challenging. When our students don’t feel successful, chances are they will start to disengage, become frustrated, and potentially begin to emit challenging behavior. To set our students up for success we need to ensure that we provide them with enough support to produce an accurate response as well as celebrate wins. Often a mismatch of task difficulty, paired with low levels of support and little pay off results in big problems.

Here are a few things to consider when leading your therapy sessions:

1. Use errorless learning. With errorless learning, you use prompts that will ensure that your student responds correctly. Prompts can vary in degree of intrusiveness and must be systematically faded to prevent prompt dependency. This approach prevents the student from making errors and reduces the likelihood of frustration.

2. Provide high rates of reinforcement. Whether your student responds to verbal praise, high 5’s, stickers, or playing a game, using continuous reinforcement when teaching something new helps the student learn quickly what the correct response is because they receive reinforcement every time, they do it. And the bonus is that receiving a ton of reinforcement throughout your therapy sessions will keep your student motivated.

Include Sensory Activities

To maximize our time during speech and language therapy sessions, it is often necessary to utilize a variety of sensory based activities. When a child faces sensory challenges as well as language deficits, avoidance behaviors may start ramping up. By taking a proactive approach by addressing any potential sensory needs we can ensure our sessions run smoothy.

Here are some fun ideas that incorporate sensory input:

1. Create an obstacle course. When using an obstacle course before seat work, a child can often sit and maintain attention to the task for a longer period. You can use classroom chairs for your student to climb under, carpet squares (or colored spots) for jumping, and tunnels for crawling through.

2. Spin in a desk chair. Some children love the vestibular input that is provided by spinning. You can include spinning during break periods, or following teaching trials, such as after the student says their target speech sound or selects the correct picture. If you do not have access to a spinning chair, consider using a sit-and-spin.

3. Use a Yoga ball or small trampoline for bouncing.

4. Provide tactile input by hiding objects in play-dough, a bucket of rice, or beans. Other materials like kinetic sand, water beads, or even shaving cream can go a long way in keeping your student actively engaged.

5. Swing in a blanket. You don’t have to have a large treatment space or expensive equipment, such as a swing set. By simply having two adults hold the ends of a blanket you can provide some nice movement breaks for your young students.

Provide Breaks

Speech therapy can be hard, after all we are challenging our students to practice things that are difficult for them. Depending on the length of your session, it may prove very beneficial to intersperse short breaks in your session. Short breaks can reduce the potential for challenging behaviors and keep your student motivated.

Here are some fun ways to include breaks in your sessions:

1. Intersperse treatment trials with a short turn with a preferred toy or activity such as placing a piece in a puzzle, throwing a ball in a hoop, taking a turn at a board game, or spinning them in a chair.

2. Teach your student how to request for a break by using a visual aid such as a picture with the written word “break”. This will help your student learn how to advocate for themselves and can help to replace any challenging behaviors such as trying to run out of your therapy room or throw therapy materials.

3. Have your student set a goal as to how many practice trials they think that can achieve within a specified amount of time, and for the remainder of the session, or for an agreed about of time allow them to participate in an activity of their choice.

By incorporating just a few of the tips above you will have your student’s full attention and engagement throughout your session, while simultaneously keeping them motivated to learn and try new things.

Now I would like to hear from you!

Which strategy from today’s post are you planning on trying first? Let me know in the comments below.


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