As more of our students choose to live out their authentic gender expression, school-based speech-language pathologists can play a role in supporting and serving them. Some SLPs already work with students on their caseload to align their voice and communication with their gender identity and expression.
For others, learning how to provide appropriate gender-affirming services to those who want and ask for the support might seem overwhelming on top of other responsibilities. But more importantly, our services can help students who are transgender or non-binary access the general education curriculum.
Consider the following scenarios. What potential educational and social consequences might they have on a student?
- A student doesn’t want to attend school because of social anxiety about their gender identity and expression. The school places them in a home program, so they get no engagement with their peers.
- A student attends school but interacts minimally with peers and staff because they feel uncomfortable about their voice. They isolate themselves out of fear and shame.
- A student refuses to participate in oral assignments because they don’t want other students and staff to hear their voice, perhaps because they feel it doesn’t align with their gender identity. They miss opportunities to express themselves in and out of the classroom setting.
School is not just a place for education. It’s also the place where our youth learn to socialize and engage with their community. These scenarios generate both academic and social consequences for students. Many school districts also include social-emotional development in their mission statements.
I first began to think about gender-affirming voice and communication services in the schools as I sat at my desk working on an IEP. I noticed the option for non-binary had been added as an option for gender.
If we work with students who are transgender and non-binary, how can we support them? Across the board, how is the emotional, social, and communication well-being of these students addressed?
I asked several middle and high school SLPs if they treat students who are transgender or non-binary. They do, and those students are on home programs. And the reason? Because the staff didn’t really know how to handle the situation.
There is no standard approach to this issue, because—like all of our students—every single person who is transgender or non-binary has a different story and needs. But to support voice and communication alignment for our students who are gender-diverse, we can start with the following:
- Administer a speech and language assessment focused on voice and pragmatics. A thorough assessment will rule out any other communication issues and established a baseline. Together with your students, you can also identify meaningful goals for them.
- Develop a vocal hygiene plan to help students maintain a healthy voice. Focus on simple behavior and lifestyle changes, such as increasing water intake.
- Teach appropriate breathing and breath support for the voice. Breath work is one of the keys to unlocking access to a more vibrant, robust, and clear voice.
- Work with your client to identify voice feminization or masculinization strategies to better align with their gender identity across the continuum.
- Remember the importance of counseling. Consult with your school counselor or school psychologist to support students’ emotional and mental well-being through this process. Through teamwork, we can develop a plan that supports our youth through this delicate time.
School-based SLPs might provide voice and social communication services to students who are transgender and demonstrate a desire or need. And in our exploration of how to begin supporting them, we realize opportunities to improve these children’s lives.
Tina Babajanians, MS, CCC-SLP, has 10 years’ experience working with voice clients. She owns a private voice clinic, The Voice Stylist, based in Orange County, California. Follow her @thevoicestylist and connect with her at email@example.com.