Tips and Resources

What to Do if Your Child Isn’t Behaving During Speech Therapy

Speech therapists work hard to make speech therapy feel less like, well, work! They use a variety of techniques to keep things fun and interesting. But the reality is, therapy can be challenging, and sometimes kids just aren’t into it. This can lead to uncooperative behavior and sessions that feel frustrating for everyone involved. 

The good news? There are ways to help your child participate and cooperate in speech therapy. Read on to learn how to address speech therapy behavior problems.

Know that your speech therapist has probably seen it all

First off, as a parent or caregiver, you may feel a bit embarrassed if your kiddo isn’t on their best behavior. They may not listen to the speech therapist or do what’s asked of them. They may be fussy, cry, have angry outbursts, or even get physical. Don’t worry–most likely, your speech therapist has dealt with similar, or even more severe, behavior.

You should feel comfortable talking with your child’s therapist about how best to handle things. Your speech therapist wants sessions to be as enjoyable as possible so your child can make progress toward their goals. 

Why speech therapy can be hard for children

Speech therapy is a new experience that can be challenging for kids. To start, this may be your child’s first time in a structured situation if they haven’t yet started preschool or kindergarten. Kids have to pay attention to the speech therapist for about 30 minutes, which can be tough for some. 

Children are smart, and they know when something is hard for them. Certain speech therapy tasks may cause them to pause and think–consciously or subconsciously–“That’s hard, I don’t like it.” This can create negative feelings and behavior during therapy. 

Children are smart, and they know when something is hard for them.

Finally, during speech therapy, your child simply may prefer to play with other toys, go outside, or have more control over what they’re doing. This is why it’s important for the parent and therapist to figure out what’s motivating for the child.

How to help your child behave during speech therapy

One key to speech therapy success is to figure out how to keep your child engaged in therapy sessions. Let’s walk through some tried-and-true ideas, all provided by Expressable speech therapists.

1 Prepare for the speech therapy session

Getting in the right mindset and prepping your child beforehand can set them up for success. Here are a few things to try:

  • Give your child a snack before the session. It’s hard to focus when you’re hungry, no matter what age you are!

  • If your child has a hard time sitting still, try getting them active before the session. That might mean playing outside, climbing up and down the stairs, or helping you with household chores. They may be more ready to sit and attend if they’ve gotten their wiggles out beforehand.

2 Use rewards as part of speech therapy

Rewards can be a game changer for kids in speech therapy. Think about it: Even adults love rewards! If you just finished a big work project, maybe you treat yourself to a dinner out. If you have tons of errands to run, you might grab your favorite coffee on the way.

Kids appreciate rewards, too. As Expressable speech therapist Annalise Colton, M.S., CCC-SLP, explains, “Some children need positive reinforcement or a reward immediately after they complete a requested behavior. This is likely best for children with special needs, younger children, or those who simply need a lot of motivation.”

Some children need positive reinforcement or a reward immediately after they complete a requested behavior.

A reward could mean giving a child a turn in the game or activity you’re playing. Or it could be a physical reward like a sticker. The goal is to begin by keeping it 1:1–one task to one reward.

Some kiddos can stay motivated with delayed rewards, such as a reward at the end of the session. If they listen and participate well, you can let them have a favorite snack after therapy, get extra playtime outside, or choose dessert for that night. 

Charts work wonders for some children! If your child does their best during their session, reward them with a sticker, smiley face, or check mark on a chart. At the end of a certain time frame, your child can pick an agreed-upon prize. Maybe they get to go to the dollar store and choose a toy, go out for ice cream, have a movie night with you, or visit their favorite park.

3 Try interactive games and physical activities

There are so many different activities that can be done during speech therapy, there’s bound to be one that will interest your child. Some kids love board games, or games on the computer. Some enjoy strategy games like Battleship. 

Other kids may enjoy doing something hands-on, like making a craft or doing a small science experiment. 

Expressable speech therapist Mahra Weber, M.S., CCC-SLP, says kids love the element of surprise and it helps keep their interest. She suggests, “Hide items or pictures for your child to find, similar to a scavenger hunt, and work in speech practice during these activities. You can also try a ‘grab bag,’ where your child has to reach into a bag of unknown items and see what they find.” 

Kids love the element of surprise, and it helps keep their interest.

Other kids do best with movement activities during speech therapy. Your speech therapist can try to include physical games in order to keep your child’s attention. Things like songs with hand motions, playing follow the leader, kicking a ball back and forth, or creating an obstacle course are just a few options. Your child will hardly recognize that they’re working!

No matter if your child is working on speech sound production, language abilities, or fluency, there are speech and language tasks you can practice during these activities. Remember, keep rewards and reinforcements 1:1 if needed! 

Be patient and stay positive!

It may take a few sessions of trying these techniques for your child’s behavior to change. If you try one of these tips and don’t see 100% improvement after one session, don’t worry. When your child has the right kind of motivation, however, you should see at least some small improvement in their ability to pay attention and cooperate. Watch for anything that sparks their attention or makes them light up. Go from there! Speech therapy should feel as positive as possible.

And on that same note, be sure to offer lots of encouragement and praise. The tasks your child is working on aren’t easy for them. Give your child plenty of high fives, hugs, and verbal encouragement. Having a supportive and understanding caregiver cheering you on can make a difference!

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