top of page

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!