I Wish I Could Be Myself…

I have always had a soft spot for Eric Carle books, and use them frequently in speech therapy.  I stumbled upon a “new” one (for me), The Mixed-Up Chameleon while perusing my school library shelves.  The story follows a hungry little chameleon on his adventure through the zoo.  The chameleon thinks about it’s shortcomings and imagines itself taking on the positive characteristics of the other animals.  But as he ponders himself becoming all the seemingly better creatures on this journey, he isn’t truly any happier.  The chameleon becomes a bizarre patchwork of pieces and parts of each of the zoo animals it imagines until there is nothing left of our poor narrator.  BUT….a tasty fly buzzes by him and prompts, “I wish I could be myself”!  Resolution, self acceptance, the end.

As with most of these deceptively simple stories, there is deeper meaning.  I think about my students who struggle with anchoring themselves in a positive self concept; too short, too tall, too heavy, too smart, too geeky, the list goes on and on.  I am sure at one time or another, we all have wished to be something we are not, something that exists only in the indefinable and unattainable place called “better”.    But what if better  actually resides in the best version of being our self and not in becoming something we are not?  See, I told you this story is deeper than first glance!

I use the chameleon’s adventure to begin discussions with the more comfortable launching point of talking about make-believe stories and creatures, not about the students themselves.  At least not yet.   The story opens up the opportunity for great conversations to start developing (and owning) ideas about what we are good at, our wheelhouse so to speak. This can lead to fabulous side lessons about the difference between confidence and bragging.  As the younger students start connecting the story to their perspective and personal experiences, the light starts to come on.  For my older elementary and  middle schoolers, this is a life skill lesson. Helping them navigate a positive self-image can be treacherous waters when we consider what culture dictates as desirable appearances and behaviors, particularly for girls.  This book is a great tool in helping kids to figure out how to appreciate positive attributes in others, without wishing away the best parts of themselves.

There are lots of fantastic accompanying activities for various age and ability levels   here and here.  There is even a lovely YouTube read aloud version here .

What activities have helped you build a positive self-image in your kids?

What did you do today?

what did you do today blog post image

Sometimes these five seemingly innocuous words breed frustration, silence or worse, “nothing”.  As a parent, being able to connect with your child’s day at school is important.  Not in a “I figured out what I want to be when I grow up”  kind of day, but in a social connection way.  Understanding that people have different experiences and can share them is a powerful idea.  It leads to conversations and connections, both important milestones in communication development.  I don’t need the minutiae of bathroom details, but the meat of the day helps.

It is a tension point sometimes for teachers to add one more thing to their to-do lists, but your speech therapist (or OT or para-pro) can help.   My fellow speechies developed a simple checklist that went home once a week for our group thematic activities.  We would follow a theme calendar and then give feedback on the child’s participation, any verbalizations or new skills we saw (hurray!), things that worked well and things that didn’t go smoothly.  We also had some visuals for their emotional state and room to comment if we figured out new tricks to share with mom and dad.  A quick email from home on a Monday morning about the weekend activities is always helpful too!

For my older students, I often ask them to use their technology to share about their weekends or breaks (instagram pictures are a great prompt…teacher friendly please!) or to help them create personal blogs or storyboards.  They are often doubtful when I suggest sharing these with their families as their perception is that mom and dad won’t care.  Surprise, we do!!

Over breaks and summer, I suggest that my parents to get a cheap flip picture book like this one:  flip book

This one was from Walmart and was less than ten dollars.  You can also find them at Dollar stores for much less and build a library of memory books.  This is an easy way to talk about a vacation or what happened while the student was on break.  It also is a good visual prep for visiting family you don’t see very often (Look, remember when we went to visit your cousins?  We had so much fun swimming at their house!) to reduce anxiety.

For more tech savvy parents, you can use a site like Shutterfly to create permanent photo books for your adventures.   There is also a new app called Steller that you can take a peek at to create visual story telling on your iphone (it  has a save feature for future viewings).   Even Pinterest can be used to create secret boards all about your adventures and can be shared only with who you invite to view it (teachers, grandparents, therapists).    So next time you ask “What did you do today?”, you just might get more than you asked for!

What communication tools work for you?

Off to see the Wizard…

It’s spring break here (finally!) and even better,  it actually feels like spring too. Harry Potter is in my near future ( yes, my geek flag is flying proudly on this one) and I couldn’t be more excited!  Before we head off to see the wizard, I wanted to share a great idea from one of my friends at school.   She took the problem/solution page I created and blew it up on a poster maker and hung it inside her classroom door.  It looks like this:


problem poster

She taught the parts of the process:

 identify the problem,
figure out who can help you
what can you do on your own?
what’s the size of the problem 
the solution you decided on  
This version also includes a question to ask, “do I know what to do next time?” and
a feeling chart before and after the problem/solution was identified.

But the best part?   The students now manage their issues on their own or together!!   They lead each other to the poster and through the process (particularly the size of the problem) successfully.  The teacher is now a teacher and not a referee (although she will step in if needed) and the daily drama has been dramatically reduced. Yay!!  The goal is for the kids to internalize this thought process and be able to take it with them through life.  Awesome job Ms. Burns!!

Feelings, nothing more than feelings.



As we edge closer to Spring Break around here, there are lots of feeling words flying about.  Kids are excited, distracted, hyper and giddy at the thought of the week ahead. Teachers are feeling the same things, but with a thick layer of exhaustion overlaying them all!!  I often get frustrated (another feeling word!) when working with the concept of emotions in the classroom.  For some reason, we seem to get stuck on happy, sad, mad and silly.  That’s it???  I know those are the primary feelings that come to mind with little people, but when working with students who have social communication weakness, subtlety is not our friend.  For us to have teachable moments, we have to talk about many more than just those four.

A SLP I work with forwarded me this amazing emotion graphic from Do2Learn .  It shows a HUGE variety of emotions that are placed on a color wheel. Each emotion word is color coded to intensity levels, then when you click on the word, it gives you a picture of someone showing this emotion and a description of it!! For example, aggravated is pink where as furious is dark purple, genius!  My only wish is that you could attach video clips not just static pictures of the emotion, but this is a fantastic starting point.   Along with this emotion chart, we need to include the clues to figure out people’s more subtle feelings such as looking at the person’s mouth (frown, tight-lipped, smiling?), the eyes and eyebrows (angry eyes anyone?), and body language (arms crossed, hands fisted, physical proximity to someone).  Take the language out of videos or commercials and have your students practice figuring out how someone feels once they master static pictures.  Emotions change over time, people and places, so this is an ongoing life lesson.

Here is a free checklist for working with your students on determining emotions (pair it with the emotion wheel!).



When Aretha Franklin pops into your head, don’t sing.

respect Keep Calm

In working with students on the spectrum (and I also include my kiddos with attention challenges, LD, EBD and all the other alphabet soups that are part of people), one of the areas we seem to bump into over and over again is the idea of respect.   Respect is simply treating others the way you would want to be treated. People work together often in school, at home, in communities and at work, and respect is the key to doing this successfully!  The topic of respect can open up discussions about feelings and situations that can take you down some pretty involved roads.  I often think our speech therapist identities are part counselor, part teacher and part researcher (with a dash of comedian/mad scientist/referee thrown in)! While it may veer off the lesson plan, sometimes the most wonderful therapy sessions come from these teachable moments!

One of the important concepts to help students understand the idea of respect is talking about who, what, where and when.  While there are several ways that we treat people the same when it comes to respect (tone of voice, using kind words, listening what is being said before responding), there are also clues that help us figure out how we treat people differently.  I have noticed that what often appears as disrespect from students is not necessarily just naughty behavior.  If a child doesn’t understand the hierarchy of relationships and thinks that everyone is their peer, their responses to unfamiliar adults or teachers may come across as rude or disrespectful (or sassy if you are from the south).  Talking about the rules of relationship and the use of visuals can help them get a better understanding of how people think about other people.   Visuals,such as a target, are helpful to talk about relationships between the child and other people in their life( like this one I created as part of a five page mini-lesson/activity here at TPT  ). This is hard for many students, especially those with ASD.  Respect goes way beyond just the words that are said!  Other facets of respect include:

  • volume of your voice (too loud or too quiet) * Decibella from Julia Cook is a great teaching tool for this concept!
  • personal space (too close or too far away)
  • tone of voice (do you sound mad or frustrated?)
  • gestures (arms crossed, eye rolls, pointing fingers)
  • timing (can you interrupt someone or should you wait?)
  • people (do I talk to my friends the same way I talk to my bus driver?)
  • things and places-important to show respect to these as well

There are many video clips to illustrate the concept of respect.  While I have an abiding love for Disney, I have noticed that most of their kids programming demonstrate significant disrespect to adults from kids (I am talking to you Zack and Cody) and offer lots of teachable moments. If your kids get stuck on the words people are saying, turn the sound off of the video and have them watch all the non-verbal clues that are going on!

Keep calm and respect on!     Share your ideas on respect here…

Why IEPs don’t have to make you cry…


A friend of mine posted on facebook a few weeks ago that she was dreading her son’s IEP.  I have heard this from many moms (and a few dads), and it always frustrates me.  While I am a speech language pathologist and a creator of said IEPs, I have also been on the other side of the table as a parent.  It is an interesting experience to have the perspective of both sides of the coin.  Why is the very document that is supposed to be an individualized road map for everyone working together, often an anxiety producing fear-fest?

The SLP side of me really tries to engage my families in creating goals that are meaningful, will move their child forward in functional and academic ways, and most importantly, are realistic and achievable.   I cringe when I see a list of 59+ goals for one kiddo; I am exhausted just reading it!!  All of them may be great goals, but when you have so many at one time, you dilute the efficacy of what you are trying to achieve and end up over-therapizing the child, leaving everyone frustrated.  What happens to teachable moments that occur throughout the day? You can’t tap into them because you are so data driven (don’t even get me started on the “rigor” of the core that is moving at the speed of light).  Yes you have data which is important, but therapy is sooo much more.  It’s also about building trust and relationships that lead to growth.

Switching to my mom hat, I felt a lot more supported and engaged when I was included in the process, not just handed the draft with the goals already done.  I know my child the best, just like most parents, and I had important input that was appreciated and considered.  I also had a realistic view of what he could achieve and was okay with taking baby steps in the right direction.  If he made leaps and bounds, fantastic, but I understood that language and learning is a complex road that takes time.  As long as the teachers and therapists were communicating the good, bad and ugly with me,  I could trust that we were moving in the right direction.  When my son got older (heading to middle school), a smart special education teacher suggested that he become part of his IEP team.  It was wonderful medicine for him to hear positives from his teachers and it added a level of personal accountability when he realized the adults in his life would be partnering with him with his progress.

I have made checklists here for parents and therapists to use in the IEP process.

Hopefully it will help make the process a more positive experience for everyone!  What are some great tips for IEPs that you have?

Do you speak school?


I had the good fortune to attend a conference where Dr. Barbara Ehren (from my alma mater, the University of Central Florida!) spoke on literacy and the common core in schools.  Her focus was adolescents, but her message was really applicable to all ages.  As she was sharing research and her experience, it clicked for me that shifting to the language of the common core has created a kind of communication disorder in all of our kids.  Stay with me here.  Dr. Ehren pointed out that there are different kinds of literacy for each academic content area (particularly in middle through high school). For example, in history dates are critical information but in math it is not.  Science is all about describing specific information and processes, while literature is about contextualizing language and themes.  Our students have to not only be aware of the language expectations and shifts, but also fluent in these content specific skills to keep up!   She compared it to us asking our students to speak French in period 1, then Spanish in period 2, Russian in period 3 and so on.  No wonder middle schoolers can be so cranky!

The common thread in all academic content is language (*SLPs jumping up and down while cheering*).  This visual does a much better job than I can of explaining how it is intertwined in everything we are asking students to do throughout their day from Kindergarten to college:


In considering what language encompasses, we have to think about all the pre-requisite skills that come before our kids can use language in the classroom successfully.  For kids to be able to listen, speak, read and write in all academic areas, they also have to master semantics, syntax, morphology, pragmatics, phonology, cognition/executive function.  Additionally they need to have the ability to manipulate and play with language to understand the nuances of words and be able think about thinking. It’s a wonder they don’t curl up into a fetal position and hide in their lockers for the day!

Even our “on level” kids are struggling in be able to show what they know with the core, never mind our kids with language impairments!  So what can we do?  Dr. Ehren suggested that we need to help kids understand and differentiate knowledge, skills and strategies in literacy.  Knowledge is what you know + a skill is something you can do = a strategy is putting these two pieces together to figure out new information.  Our role as teachers, SLPs and parents is to help our kids learn how to learn and to use strategies that are both effective and efficient.  Strategies that work well for one student may not work for another, so it really is an individual learning curve.  We are all in this together and need to work collaboratively to support our students.  It’s not my job or your job, it’s our job. So what’s the magic ingredient for success?  Get ready……we have to talk to each other and our students.  I know, big reveal, but honestly we don’t do this particularly well with the ever growing to-do lists we all seem to have.

In thinking about strategies, I started looking at different blogs and websites for ideas.  I love teacherspayteachers, and found this wonderful visual for the verbs of the common core.If you don’t know what words like analyze and cite mean, how are you going to know what to do? I am a big believer in using visual support for elementary students to connect a picture to word in the classroom and create a lot of materials to go along with the social studies and science units for my kids.  It is interesting to me that what works well for my students with language impairments also benefits our ESOL students, our kids with weak executive function (ADD), our late readers and our kids on the spectrum who decode words without attaching any meaning to what they are reading. Want more information?   Take a peek at Dr. Ehren’s presentation for great examples on supporting literacy across the core (from KSHA presentation 2012).