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Motivating Preschoolers in Speech Therapy

Keeping preschoolers engaged for an entire speech therapy session can be challenging!

Having spent many years in the adolescent and young adult school setting followed by geriatric, my initial impression of the early childhood population was unintelligible and unmanageable! I am by no means an expert at this point, but I have found a few verified ways to survive a three year old for thirty minutes:

  1. Make them feel independent! Young children have a strong desire to do things on their own. You can help them feel independent by creating routines and establishing responsibilities. Cleaning up after a session is a must in my therapy room. Create rule based activities for turn taking and “fair play”.
  2. Make it active! Sitting at a table across from an unfamiliar adult isn’t a preschooler’s idea of fun. Standing at a table, sitting on a mini yoga ball, or sitting on a super plush rug can be more their style…and that might all occur in the first five minutes!
  3. Make it messy! This is where I struggle. I was one of those moms who didn’t do play dough, didn’t do bubbles in the house, kept moist towelettes in my car/purse/kitchen/bathroom… I think you get the point! Do you know what I have found since becoming a preschool therapist? Kids wipe clean and so do I. Tables wipe clean (and most of them are dry erase boards too!). Vacuum cleaners get sand out of the carpet. Play dough dries and comes out of most things. Markers are washable.
  4. Make it entertaining! Did I think I would ever wear a patch over my eye for several hours a day? Absolutely not. Does it work to keep my kids engaged? Every time. Using puppets to retell a story, singing songs using a YouTube video on the iPad, playing with carefully selected toys instead of flash cards, reading books that have texture, sound and lift-the-flaps, and wearing costumes or masks are all some tricks that I have ready at any time to pull out of my “bag”.
  5. Make it competitive! Peer pressure is a good thing at this age. Creating a speech therapy session that involves another student with similar goals will motivate a more reluctant child to attempt correct verbalizations. Setting personal goals per child will also make it more rewarding for the competitive child. “You can do TEN WORDS before taking a break! That’s amazing!”
  6. Make them successful. It is just part of our human nature to want to be successful. Never let a child fail. Figure out a way to make them succeed. You are the professional so make it happen. A challenge is great. Without it there would be no progress. If a child has a sound they CAN make, let them show it off. If they have a certain skill in language but not many others, always end a session with it.
  7. Make the smallest accomplishment the biggest celebration they have ever experienced! When a child does something amazing, let them know it. Scream, hug, cheer, clap, reward, high five, or stand on your head! Do whatever it takes to them know that they are correctly communicating and progressing toward their overall goal.

If I have a student interested in a particular topic like trains or dinosaurs, I try to create therapy sessions early on in our relationship that specifically target their goals centered around something they love. Β I’m pretty sure most of us do that since a therapist reached out to me last spring requesting a very specific product. She had a little one who was “obsessed with birds” but he had limited vocabulary. She asked for an activity that she could use with him to keep his attention and target his goal. That is when the FEED THE BIRD activity was created!

When my little guy who loved dinosaurs needed to work more on verbs than dinosaur names, this little project was born:

I have been using this type of activity in various forms over the last year. It has gotten to the point where my PreK and Kindergarteners request “Feeding Animals” if I don’t pull one out every week or two. My strategies listed above are confirmed! We get plenty of repetitions in, are able to use the same activity to target a variety of goals and we ALL have fun.

What else do you have in your “bag of tricks” for toddlers? Please feel free to comment below.

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