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  • Stacy Crouse

Strategies to Engage Older Students in Speech Therapy

Does finding ways to engage middle and high school students in speech therapy feel like a work of art? Maybe it’s just me, but often it seems like the stars must perfectly align in order for older students to show interest in therapy sessions. At times, It feels impossible to find activities that older students don't think are totally lame.

With that said, I do love working with older students, even though sometimes it seems like an impossible feat. Recently, I’ve been analyzing what seems to make sessions with older students successful. What components make therapy the most engaging, and therefore, productive?

Of course, there will always be factors outside of our control. Adolescents and teenagers are obviously very different than preschool and elementary students in many different ways. But I have found that being selective about the types of activities that I do with older students gets the session off on the right foot.

So, here are 5 things that I keep in mind when making or looking for activities to engage older students:

It’s all about them.

It’s no secret that teens like to talk about things that they like. That’s no different from the rest of us, right? Since getting older students to participate can be like pulling teeth, we might as well let high-interest topics be a way to facilitate participation.

This ice-breaker activity is a perfect example. The basis of the entire activity is allowing students to ask each other questions and share about various topics. I encourage students to make follow up questions or comments that may include connecting the topic to themselves. After all, finding commonalities is a natural way to engage with others.

This Poll Questions activity is another example of encouraging students to participate by telling about what they think about various topics. While doing so, they are also learning to respect the opinions of others, formulate questions, give justification, use persuasion, and so many other higher level pragmatic and language skills.

Give choices...... a.k.a. ownership!

Giving choices is not just a strategy to use with younger students. For adolescents and teens that are in the process of developing their sense of identity and striving for autonomy, allowing them opportunities to make their own choices is so powerful. Granting students a sense of ownership also plays into helping them know their own value.

An example of this in speech therapy might be allowing the student to choose the topic of an article for targeting vocabulary within context. In my teletherapy sessions, I often pull up the ReadWorks or Tween Tribune website. Once I filter by grade level, I allow the student to browse through the articles to choose which one we'll read that day.

Another example are these digital speech books where the student is in charge of identifying words for articulation practice. Since the books are in a Google Slides format, I share the link with students to work on at home, but also assist them as needed.

Make a Game Plan.

I have found that activities with an element of strategy work well for engaging students– games (or game-like activities) that create a challenge are often too irresistible 😉 This could be a competitive game among two or more students, or an independent challenge. It could also be a collaborative activity that requires a group of students to work together toward particular goal using higher level thinking (i.e. not luck).

This digital peg game is one activity I use to make articulation practice more exciting for older students. Not only does the activity look the part (no immature graphics or clip art), but it also provides a challenge for students to conquer.

Keep Me in Suspense!

In addition to activities that require thinking strategically, an element of mystery or suspense is also quite engaging for older students. If the entire activity is known or predictable, students may not have a reason to stay attentive throughout.

Since finding engaging activities to target articulation with older students is a pain point for SLPs, I have created some mature Boom Card decks for this specific population. These activities not only utilize choice-making, but also create suspense as the student reveals each target word.

For example, in the fireworks and ghosts activities above, the target words are hidden until the student moves the objects (either the fireworks or the ghosts) onto the picture. Not only is the student able to use creativity in forming the scene, but the reveal of each word is anticipated.

Look the part.

It goes without saying that the majority of older students want to be treated like, well, older students. Most will not show interest in activities designed for younger children, even if those activities are appropriate for the goal being targeted. Using activities that have age-appropriate images, themes, and language will foster more trust… and less eye rolls.

Real photographs are generally more appealing to older students than clip art. Similarly, stories and passages about things that teens and adolescents know and care about will be much more engaging than those pertaining to younger children. In this social language resource, real pictures are used to depict situations that older students can relate to.

In this activity, text message simulations are used to practice engaging in conversation with others. Obviously, texting and messaging is a huge piece of teen communication, so students are more likely to view this as a functional and relatable activity.

In a perfect world, all of our students come bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to each speech therapy session. But as middle and high school SLPs, we know that this isn't a perfect world.

So instead, we just have to put a little more thought into our planning. There are some tricks we can keep up our sleeves to help our older students maintain attention and interest in speech therapy activities.

To recap, the ones I use are:

1. Making the activity about them and things they care about.

2. Allowing students to make choices.

3. Including strategy or game-like aspects.

4. Incorporating an element of mystery.

5. Using pictures and topics that are relative and interesting to older students.

What about you? What strategies have you found to encourage your middle and high school students to maintain interest?

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