Middle School

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Speech pathologists can help your tween talk more

Kid hiding behind leaf - speech pathologists can help your tween talk moreDoes your tween have a tough time talking to adults, or figuring out how to start a conversation with a kid he’s just met? Is he very nervous speaking in public, or talking to a peer of the opposite sex? Maybe a speech language pathologist can help.

“There’s a big misconception about what speech language pathologists actually do,” says Carolyn Davidson, clinical manager and a speech language pathologist with Speech Therapy Centres of Canada in Toronto. “Most people think we just help kids who lisp or can’t pronounce their Rs. Part of that is because we’re often referred to as ‘speech therapists.’ But our work is really about how we understand language, vocabulary and sentence structure, and how we use language socially. Language is a social skill. Just because you have good grammar or vocabulary doesn’t mean you can have a conversation with a peer. We can help.”

Many of the tweens and teens Carolyn sees have had a brain injury (from a fall or car accident) or have Aspergers or another high-functioning form of autism. Others have a learning disability of some kind. But many have no diagnosis at all – they are just shy, have trouble making friends and their parents want to build their confidence. Working in small groups, the kids tackle these scenarios:

Making new friends

Kids are always meeting new people. How do you introduce yourself for the first time? Or approach a group of friends who already know each other? “We often watch tween sitcoms and see how the characters interact with each other, and then judge them afterward,” says Carolyn. “Were they looking at the person’s face? Asking appropriate questions?” Then the kids role play with each other, coming up with a list of ‘safe questions’ to ask. “We provide them with a strategy. The more they practise on one another, the more prepared they’ll be for the real thing.”

Talking to an adult

Whether it’s talking to a teacher, a camp counsellor or a hockey coach, many kids are very passive. They don’t speak up and don’t ask questions if they don’t understand. Carolyn starts by helping kids identify what type of body language and verbal language is appropriate, depending on who they are speaking with. “You might say, ‘Hello, nice to meet you,’ to a friend of your parents’, and ‘How’s it going’ to your camp counsellor.” They also talk about what kinds of questions are appropriate to ask an adult – why it’s okay to ask your teacher if she had a nice weekend, but not okay to ask what she did on the weekend. They also practise safe questions and forming polite and informative responses to an adult’s questions.

Standing up for what you believe in

Many tweens feel like they have to conform to the views and opinions of their peers if they want to fit in. “We try to teach them to be their own advocates,” says Carolyn. “How do you stand up for yourself without coming across as a cry baby or a wimp? And where do you go for help if what someone is saying to you is not okay?” Some of the kids Carolyn sees have the opposite problem: they are overly aggressive about their opinions. “We teach them how to talk about their differences without being abusive or rude, and to help them learn to see things from another person’s perspective in order to avoid unnecessary conflict.”

Why a speech language pathologist?

  • The tween years come with a whole host of challenges, but for those kids who have trouble communicating, even the most basic social situations can be paralyzing. And it’s often the kids who don’t speak as well or communicate as clearly who get picked on.
  • Many parents immediately think of a psychologist or social worker if their child is struggling, but speech language pathologists can be a great resource for kids with communication challenges. “Everyone wants to make friends and feel comfortable with people,” says speech language pathologist Caroline Davidson. “We help these kids figure out what their deficits are so they can fix them. After a while, they really look forward to coming. They see it as a place to go where everyone understands what they’re going through.”

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2012.

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