Vulnerability & Speech Resiliency
Updated: Aug 28
This is a little story about teaching speech resiliency. I was working with a 3-year-old with childhood apraxia of speech. Let’s call him Mikah. One of the things we worked on for a while was speech resiliency. I use this term to refer to the ability to recover quickly after doing something incorrectly during speech therapy. When we do anything incorrectly, we all experience feelings of defeat, frustration and failure. We might stay with those feelings and allow those feelings to dictate our next outcome or we can recover from the defeat and choose to move forward with what I call powerful dedication. That is the internal motivational energy source we all have within us. It is strong when the individual has desire to do something new that might be challenging. This requires all of your brain’s focus and energy to be on that one task so it tunes out anything else. Essentially, it is being in a flow state.
Think about how important internal feeling is on outcome. For me, I visualize going up to bat during a game of baseball when I was in middle school. Sports didn’t come naturally to me so I had a lot of experience striking out. I always had a sense of fear when I went up to bat. I was scared of failure in front of all of my peers. I tried to get out of it if I could and sometimes made up an excuse why I had to sit out. Other times I couldn’t physically get out of it so I mentally got out of it. I swung the bat with floppy arms. It was obvious to everyone I wasn't mentally focused and trying. It seemed better to knowingly fail then to risk the possibility of failure. So I pretended I was too cool to care about sports. One day I changed my mental attitude and channeled that powerful dedication within me. I was willing to risk failure to see if I could actually do it if I tried. I focused on the ball. I swung the bat like I saw the other kids do and I missed. Instead of allowing the defeat to wash over me, I reminded myself I have two more tries and I could do this. I focused and to my own surprise, I hit the ball on the second try.
Hitting a speech target can feel the same way for a child who has difficulty with speech production. Especially when the child has a lot of experience hearing they didn’t do it right. The vulnerable feelings of defeat are always a possibility if they try. It takes energy and focus to try to hit the speech target. The child needs to have the speech resiliency and powerful dedication to succeed. I have seen children repeat back words just like I swung the bat with floppy arms. The child is complying with the direction because they know they will get in trouble if they don’t. The child knows they can’t be forced to try their best to hit the speech target. Vulnerability and powerful dedication cannot be forced.
I started teaching resiliency during therapy. Later I started following Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability and realized that my new way of teaching was aligned with her work too. Therapists rarely ever show vulnerability with their clients. But therapists ask their clients to be vulnerable all of the time when they ask them to repeat new speech movement patterns. Brené Brown says she chooses to share her vulnerability with people who also share their vulnerability with her. I realized this was what I was doing through modeling resiliency. I would look for situations where I could be vulnerable and fail. I explained my feelings and my process to get through it. Then I would keep trying and sometimes get it right. And if I didn’t, then I modeled letting the feelings of frustration go to either ask for help or to move on from the difficulty.
I did this many times with Mikah during therapy. I would have a hard time fixing a toy. My digger would have a hard time picking up a rock. I couldn’t open a container. The list goes on. One day we were outside doing his favorite thing, digging in the dirt with his construction vehicles. It came up in conversation where I asked him, “What are you good at?” I expected him to say something like “I’m good at digging a big hole.” Since that’s what he loved to do and we talked about that so much. He paused for a second and looked up. Then he said, “Me good at……(pause)….hard things.” I was so proud at this 3-year-old for saying this. He knows when things are hard. Speech is extremely hard for him with verbal apraxia. He knows he is good at facing things that are hard to channel his own powerful dedication to fight for his voice. The more that he has that powerful dedication, the more opportunities he has to build new neuropathways for speech.
Here are the steps I use when teaching speech resiliency:
1. Find something that might be hard to do. A few examples might be: struggling to open a box or container, struggling to fix a toy, copying a movement the child does like a somersault, etc. Do it a few times and show you didn’t do it right.
2. Talk about your feelings. Explain the thoughts and feelings you might be having from this hard experience. Say “I’m so frustrated.” Or “Ugh, this is so hard. I can’t do it.” or “It’s too hard.” Model frustrated tone of voice and body language.
3. Pause and switch your energy. Be your own cheerleader or ask the child to help support you. Say “I can do hard things.” You then shift your energy out of the feeling failure to the feeling of powerful dedication. I might say things like, “Wait…. (pause) I know it is hard. That’s ok. I can do hard things. I just have to keep trying and learn from my mistakes.” Or I might get the child involved like, “Wow. This was hard for me, huh? Do you think I can do it if I keep trying?” Kids are naturally resilient and keep trying all the time. Think of how many times a baby tries to walk before they do it. Or how many times a child tries to tie their shoes before they can. If you ask them, most of the time they will cheer you on too. If they don’t, then model your powerful dedication. Say, “You think I can’t? I can do anything I put my mind to. I can do hard things! Let me try it again.”
4. Model success, ask for help, or move on. After a few failed attempts then you get it right. Then affirm you did it! Say “I can do hard things!” Sometimes you might model what it looks like when you don’t get it right after a few times. You let it go to move on. Ask for help if needed.
5. Apply the resiliency experience to a speech task. Go through the same steps: The child tries to say a speech target and they don’t get it right and experience frustration. Talk about feelings and acknowledge that was hard. Cheer on the child and remind them, “You can do hard things.” Then talk about another experience you had together when something was hard and either you or the child had to keep trying to get it right. Remind them it is possible to succeed even when it’s hard. Remind them it is worth fighting for.
Identify natural resiliency moments the child has and reflect on them. “Remember when we first did this puzzle? It was so hard. You have done it many times since that first time. Now look at yourself. Its easy for you now.”
Adults often try to help a child’s frustration by telling them not to feel frustrated and not to worry that the thing is easy to do. We don’t feel connected when our feelings are not validated. When someone says “its easy” we think “Its easy for them. They are going to think I’m a total failure if I mess up on something so easy.” Remember to validate and encourage trying!
Speech therapy is a vulnerable process for the child to go through. They have to show up knowing they are at risk of failure. They won’t succeed if they don’t take the risk. They need to feel safe to be vulnerable in a space where adults also model vulnerability. Their feelings need to be validated and they need to know they are supported no matter what the outcome of their attempt is. With support, they are likely to build speech resiliency they need to meet all of their goals.