We constantly communicate while we’re at work. We greet co-workers on the way into work. We chat at lunch with people about our favorite shows and weekend plans. Communication in the workplace, no matter how short or how long, is an essential part of how we’re perceived and how we participate as a professional team member. It’s an example of a “soft skill” that contributes to job success.
These vocational soft skills can present challenges for older students with communication disorders who are seeking meaningful and competitive employment.
How can we, as speech-language pathologists, help students increase these functional skills? I work with my middle school and older students on communication skills needed for employment as part of their regular service delivery.
Below I share some tips and strategies I’ve learned for working on these functional language skills with older students.
For all students, but especially for our older learners, I encourage all team members to teach, support, and embed opportunities to practice functional communication skills throughout the day. Helping support vocationally focused goals—created together with special education teachers—assures this collaborative programming that allows for multiple opportunities to practice skills.
Create jobs for your students to do at school. A good start involves discussing with school staff what jobs students might do. Some of these jobs might also qualify students for service-learning hours, which many schools now require for graduation. Possible jobs include assisting teachers with making copies or tidying their classrooms, working in the media center, delivering mail, helping out at the annual book fair, and much more. The more practice students have the better! Students can sample a variety of different job tasks to gauge their interests.
Breaking it down
Whatever jobs you give your students, help them figure out how to break down the larger job into smaller pieces. This process reveals what skills students need to focus on during sessions. It also allows us to take data on the specific skills a student does independently and what areas in which they need help. Specific data allow us to focus our teaching on particular areas. For example, for a student delivering staff mail we can break this job down into the following steps:
- Student gets the mail bag
- Student greets the administrative assistant
- Student gathers mail for teacher A
- Student gathers mail for teacher B
- Student walks to teacher A’s room
- Student knocks on the door
- Student greets teacher A
- Student hands teacher A their mail
- Student walks to teacher B’s room
- Student knocks on the door
- Students greets teacher B
- Student hands teacher B their mail
- Student returns the mail bag
- Student says they’re finished with the mail job
I then write a + or – to indicate how the student performed each step. The items that receive a – indicate what we need to address in our next session to learn this skill.
Most of us work with students of varying communication levels. These jobs allow for embedded communication practice. You can modify each one to include more or less communication output.
- Collect multiple food item boxes—pasta, graham crackers, mac and cheese—and set up a simulated store. Students practice gathering needed supplies for the job, picking one box and matching it to the correct shelf or reading the number of each item on a list, and checking to see if the correct number is on the shelf.
- Does your school recycle? Students can go to specific classrooms to pick up recycling bins. This is a great time to work on greetings. Students can also ask teachers if their bin needs emptying. This job allows them to navigate the school building, interact with adults, empty smaller bins into a larger bin, and take the bin back.
- Library or media center. Work with your school’s librarian or media specialist to help train your student how to re-shelve books. Allowing the librarian to train the student is good practice on receptive language skills. While doing this job, students work on greeting staff and asking how they can help. They can place books on shelves, asking for help as needed, and tell staff when they completed the task.
Creating job opportunities for our students provides them with direct instruction, coaching, and feedback regarding communication skills within job tasks. This helps our students become more confident communicators in the workplace and can improve communication soft skills for all situations!
Rosemarie Griffin, MA, CCC-SLP, is a clinician in public and private schools. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 1, Language Learning and Education; and 16, School-Based Issues.