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How to keep preschoolers engaged in Speech Therapy


I remember when my clinical supervisor said this to me, "if your student off-task, not paying attention, running away, or refusing to complete a task - the issue isn’t them - it’s you."


I was SO insulted (despite her telling me to not take it personally, many times). It was hard not to have hurt feelings, but I am so glad I listened to her.


Her advice changed everything because She taught me to believe that kids WANT to be good.


No child comes in to your therapy room thinking, “I’m going to push this person to the limit today” - yet we have all felt that some kids most certainly ARE thinking that.

I assure you - they aren't.


I also want to assure you that you are a fantastic SLP!

I remember feeling SO defeated (and frustrated) when kids didn't want to work with me. I don't want you to feel this way (and maybe you don't feel that way and that is AMAZING!)

I want you to have a huge bag of tricks to use when your students aren't as engaged as you want them to be, so I sharing my top tips to keep your students engaged that I have learned over the past 13 years as a Preschool SLP.


From my experience, when a child is unwilling to practice their speech sounds/words, it is usually because of 1 of 2 reasons.

The first reason is that the task is too hard. The child may not be developmentally ready for it, they may need more cues, or they may just perceive it as ‘too hard’.


The second reason is that the child isn’t buying what you’re selling. The child might be bored, not feel comfortable with you, or simply just doesn’t want to do the task.


Once you figure out why the child isn’t willing to practice, you can try out some of these quick and easy tips to have your student practicing in no time!

If the task is too hard….


1. Take a step back: Think about your goal and decide if the child is actually ready to learn that skill. Does the child consistently demonstrate the pre-requisite skills? With a little digging and observation, you might find that the child isn’t ready for the skill you are working on.


For example, if you are working on a particular word shape or sound, and the child can’t make the sound easily in words, they may not be ready to practice the sound in a sentence. Please note - this is a simplified example- use your clinical skills to determine what level your student needs to be working on.


2. Lower expectations: Kids are kids! We can’t expect them to magically change their behaviour between sessions. As adults, we need to change what our expectations are. If a student has repeatedly shown that they cannot demonstrate a skill - we might need to start smaller.


For example, if a child didn’t imitate you even once during your last session, it isn’t fair to expect them to imitate you 100 times in your next session. You might need to aim for 5, then 10, then 20, and so on. Celebrate any growth that does occur.


3. Help them: One way you can help your students is by offering more cues! Make sure you are offering verbal, visual, tactile, metacognitive, and auditory cues. Using more cues can help your student feel more confident (and be more accurate!) when imitating you. For more information on different types of cues you can use, please check out this blog post about using multi-sensory cueing.


You can also ask your students, "how can I help you?". This is such a good way to take away any power struggle and really connect with your students. Things that might help are sensory breaks, more time, a walk, or a break. This will really vary student to student.

If the child isn’t buying what your selling:


1. Imitate them: This is such a great strategy! Imitate the child’s sounds, actions, and words. You might feel a little silly (I say this from experience after jumping around like a frog the first time I met a family), but this will go a long way. You can imitate the child, then model the word you want them to imitate, and wait! Quite often, the child will imitate you!


2. Set it up: Use activities that are loaded with the child's target words/sounds. This might take a little planning ahead of time, but it will be worth it. For example, if one of your targets is the word “go” and you have a bucket of cars, it will be really hard not to say the word, 'go' during the activity.


3. Use a play script: Set up a predictable activity that the target word is inherent in. For example, if your target words are, ‘hi’ and ‘bye’, you could use figurines and toy house. Have the figurines take turns ringing the bell and saying ‘hi’ and ‘bye’. The student will often catch on to the play routine and participate in it! Repetitive books are also great for this because the student knows what word to expect.

4. Praise and praise again: We want students to feel positive when they are with us! Praise any behaviour or attempt that they make to build up their confidence. Children need to feel comfortable before they can take risks (and saying their sounds incorrectly might be perceived as a risk!).


5. Use Visuals: Use a visual schedule, a visual timer, or a tally box. Sometimes students just need to see how much they have to do before they can attempt the task. Remember to start small and build up!

6. Let them lead: A lot of the time I think we think we are letting the child lead, but we aren’t. We want our kids to be having fun and be engaged in our activity - this is especially true for toddlers and preschoolers!


An easy way to let the child lead is to set up the room with a variety of toys and activities and allow them navigate their way around the room. You can also offer choices and change the activity once you see they are not as engaged.


If you're looking for a handy choice chart for therapy, I have one in my freebies library! Click here and get access to it and a tonne of other freebies!



Remember - Not all of these tips will work, or are appropriate, for all students. You might have to try a few and see what works for your student. You know your students best!



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