Just say ‘no’ to homework (at first)
Speech therapy homework may not be a good idea (especially at the beginning of therapy)... Surprised that I am saying this? Well, it’s true. There is a time and a place for appropriate practice, but quite often, speech therapy homework is over-assigned and counter-productive.
In fact, when a new client’s parent asks me for homework after a successful first therapy session, I almost always say ‘no’ [and the crowd goes wild!] You should see the child’s expression, it’s priceless and I’ve undoubtedly made an instant ally with my new client…then, (s)he quickly shifts his attention away from whatever (s)he may be doing (a game, playing on the Wii, it could be just about anything) as (s)he tries to listen in--with half a smile on his/her face—and glean some wisdom about how exactly I pulled that off—how did I tell his/her mom “No, sorry, no homework!” You can clearly see him/her working through a plan to re-use this tactic at home that night…surely, if it works, they could repeat this very same scenario at home… I can see the wheels turning as he/she imagines being at home that night, sitting at the dining room table telling his/her mom, “Sorry, I cannot do this math homework…” His/her half smile, gets wider as I explain…
Traditional homework is given to a student at school for a variety of reasons. It often serves as a follow-up assignment from a classroom lesson or may provide an opportunity to tackle a new type of problem or writing assignment at home. A child’s familiarity and proficiency with the material can vary. Speech therapy homework is different… Speech therapy homework should, by its nature, take on an entirely different form and purpose from traditional homework assignments. Understanding what speech therapy homework ‘should be’ will allow your child to maximize speech therapy benefits, accelerate progress, and minimize frustration.
What speech therapy homework should be
Properly assigned speech therapy homework is characterized by practice of previously mastered skills; it serves to reinforce skills developed within speech therapy sessions. The purpose of speech therapy homework is to strengthen skills, to develop greater automaticity, and to maintain proficiency of mastered abilities. Unlike traditional homework your child may receive, speech therapy homework is not meant to develop new skills or for a parent to become the therapist through experimentation in best techniques for developing placement of the articulators (lips, teeth, tongue, etc.).
Your child’s speech-language pathologist is the one, who within weekly scheduled appointments, establishes new motor plans or adjusts existing ones so that new speech production patterns can be established or changed. Then, it’s through regular, consistent opportunities for accurate productions, that your speech-language pathologist will make measurable change in your child’s speech patterns. Regular therapy will systematically move speech production proficiency from easier skills to more challenging ones, by building on the previous one. Customarily, speech therapy moves from the word level across word positions through spontaneous use at a conversational level (words starting with a target sound; words with the target sound in the middle position; words with the target sound at the end of the word; sentences with the target words embedded; conversational exchanges with the target words used). Once skills are mastered, meaning that your child can demonstrate high levels of accuracy (90-100%), over time (2-3 sessions consecutively), home practice—homework-- is appropriate. This may take time.
When I finally do assign homework, I already have great confidence in a child’s ability to produce a sound at the prescribed level-- the word level, sentence level, conversational level, and the homework assigned simply provides additional opportunities to reinforce these patterns at home. The practice allows for this newly learned behavior to be repeated. At this point, because consistency in accurate production is established, I can easily share with parents the type of cues or supports that have been helpful and how best to respond to errors. The parent’s participation in the homework is more the role of a coach or cheerleader than the teacher as the child does what he or she already knows how to do. This is what speech therapy homework should look like.
In a nutshell: speech therapy homework should be:
- Focused on previously mastered skills, repetition
- Completed at home with ease
- Facilitated by a parent with guidance from the SLP for how cues or prompts are used production.
What speech therapy homework should not be
When a “trial and error” approach is used, one where the child is experimenting with accurate productions and is inaccurate just as often as he or she is accurate, or the parents are tasked with having to establish cues to help their child by themselves, the benefits of the homework are often lost. When a child is not yet accurate in executing new sounds and doesn’t know how to do them, homework is not very appropriate. Poorly executed speech therapy homework commonly leads to one of two things: little to no change in speech production abilities or regression. Speech therapy homework, where inaccurate positioning is reinforced, is counter-productive. This gives the child additional opportunities for practicing the old, wrong, motor plan, which can increase its use. If the child spends more time practicing wrong patterns instead of the right ones, it ultimately works against your efforts.
Moral of the story: homework is good when implemented correctly.
Homework in speech is really not much home work at all
So, what happens to my newly formed alliance with my client when the “no homework” rule is lifted you ask? Usually nothing... By the time homework is appropriate, the child is skilled at producing the target sound—he or she is practically an expert. They know how to achieve accuracy and are often eager to proudly show off their newly learned skills! Homework takes only 5-10 minutes each night. As a result, the smile stays, they complete the homework regularly—willingly-- and they help move their progress along more quickly. It’s a win-win… the child completes their homework, does so accurately, and their progress in therapy sessions accelerates. When speech therapy homework is what it should be – it works, it's easy and leaves plenty of time for traditional homework (there’s nothing I can do about that homework, sorry!)