“I don’t need this anymore, this is dumb.” “I have been coming to speech therapy since kindergarten, why do I have to come again this year!” Sullen silence, arms crossed and eyes rolling. If you have worked with middle school or even high school students, I am sure you have had at least one student and most likely, more than one student who start off the year with this attitude or one similar. I like how Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., a psychologist in Austin, Tx put it, “At this awkward age, common school experiences can be magnified by insecurity and emotional vulnerability so that even small slights can cause a lot of suffering.” Social Challenges of Middle School by Carl E. Pickhardt Ph.D.
First, I always look at the student’s goals and ask myself, as a seasoned therapist, “Are these goals appropriate for this student at this stage of development?” If yes, then I need to get “buy in” from my students. If no, then I am consulting with the IEP team and parents to adjust the goals and what the focus of speech therapy will be or having a conversation with the team about the dismissal of services.
So how do I get “buy in” from my middle school students? My first session with any new middle school student is twofold. I always want to establish rapport with the students. Find out what their interests are and what they consider fun and interesting. I will then tailor my sessions around those likes and interests. As a therapist in telepractice, I also take advantage of the first scheduling phone call to parents to interview them and find out what interests their child. This way I can have something I know the students are interested in available at our first session.
The other portion of that first session is asking them why they are in speech therapy. What have they worked on in therapy before? If they know the reason they are coming to therapy, it goes a long way toward them being cooperative with attending. They still may not want to be there. However, they at least understand why they are in therapy, even if it has been explained to them in the past.
Next, I review their goals with them in terms they can understand. Then I give them ownership and the responsibility of meeting those goals with my help. If they want to be dismissed from speech therapy, these are the goals they need to master. This is what we are going to work on during the school year to get them to meet those goals. I find that they appreciate the responsibility and being treated more like an adult than a child. They are struggling to gain independence from the child they have been, and it is affirming to a child with a disability to feel like they have some control over that problem and how to improve their skills.
I find some students have days where they still want to be little kids and other days they want to be treated like an adult. If they are having an off day, I will abandon all the plans for that session and have a conversation with them about what is going on with them. Often giving them that time to talk about what is going on helps them to feel better and we can then proceed with the session.
I have attached some resources and others’ thoughts you might find helpful when planning for working with Middle School students. This is a difficult stage of development for a lot of students and anything I can do as a therapist to make my time with them better and help them to be successful is time well spent.