Communicating with families from a strengths-based perspective

"In writing from a strengths and abilities perspective, we write in a manner that is neutral and positive, limiting the extent to which we emphasize deficits in our interpretation of observed behaviors."

Many of us have been taught to write our evaluation and progress reports from a strengths-based perspective.The purpose of using strengths-based report writing is not only to be respectful and kind to the child and family (though that’s certainly enough!), but also because research has shown it improves the therapy process (e.g. clinician­–parent relationship) and outcomes (e.g. behavioral, academic); see article background for literature review. The authors state, “… documentation may be the anchor for how families have and share information…” and “…it’s important that … services occur in a way that leaves families with hope rather than despair.”

The purpose of this study was to evaluate current clinical practices. To do this, the researchers pulled 20 patient reports from an autism diagnostic clinic, collaboratively written by SLPs, OTs, and psychologists. They then analyzed 299 phrases from these reports, coding each as:

  • descriptive (e.g. “The child’s mother and stepfather accompanied him to the appointment.”
  • interpretive, positive (e.g. “Julie was easily redirected to tasks.”)
  • interpretive, negative (e.g. “Emily was generally unable to follow simple directions.”)
  • interpretive, neutral (e.g. “He exhibited a partial smile during the balloon activity.”)

Findings from the study demonstrated that, “…interdisciplinary providers… used phrases that were interpretive and negative significantly more often than other types of statements in their written diagnostic reports.” The authors state, “… clinicians may identify strengths and resources during a diagnostic evaluation, yet make intervention and programming recommendations around a specified diagnosis with little consideration for the identified strengths or family priorities.”

So, we may not be using strengths-based writing nearly enough. Now, an initial reaction from a clinician reflecting on his/her own writing may be, “Yeah, I use negative interpretive language. But it’s because I’m trying to get this kid the services he/she needs, and school districts and insurance companies don’t exactly pony up easily.” And the authors acknowledge this barrier—that reimbursement and service provision is deeply rooted in a deficits model. But does it have to be? Is there any data to indicate that negative interpretive language is more likely to result in service provision and reimbursement? Regardless, when the client, family, and intervention outcomes are the focus, writing from a strengths-based perspective has strong supportive evidence.

So, how can clinicians improve their skills? First, the authors suggest that some version of “active learning strategies”, with practice, coaching, feedback are likely to work better than passively listening to a brief CE course, for example. They also suggest clinicians may audit their own work by using Figure 1 from the article (which is basically a flow chart to figure out what type of language you’re using). Also, Table 5 in the article gives example of what strengths-based writing does and doesn’t look like, such as:

  • YES: “He hit his sister twice…” (descriptive)
  • YES: “He used happy and sad facial expressions on several occasions.” (neutral interpretive)
  • YES: “He maintained good eye contact…” (positive interpretive)
  • NO: “Social interactions were difficult.” (negative interpretive)
  • NO: “He was very impulsive in the waiting area.” (negative interpretive)

As can be seen, the use of descriptive, positive interpretive, and neutral interpretive is encouraged, and the use of negative interpretive is discouraged.

The authors state, “Providers are considered a guide or agent to the family, and their role is to assist them in identifying their own strengths and resources and help them realize their potential.” Also, “By focusing on strengths, we shift the starting point of care from problems (or deficits) to strengths and abilities.”

Braun, M.J., Dunn, W., Tomcheck, S.D. (2017). A pilot study on professional documentation: do we write from a strengths perspective? American Journal of Speech­–Language Pathology. Advance online publication. doi:10.1044/2017_AJSLP-16-0117

Self-advocacy during communication breakdowns

This article shows that some children and teens with neurodevelopmental disorders are at a particularly high risk for not speaking up (or gesturing, signing, using AAC) to indicate when they don’t understand what others trying to say. Self-advocacy during communication breakdowns is particularly challenging for boys with comorbid Fragile X and Autism, and also challenging for those with Down Syndrome. In addition to clinicians simply being aware of populations at particular risk for challenges, this article is also useful because their tasks for measuring non-comprehension are well-described. Thus, clinicians could reasonably use some of the tasks as inspiration for probing non-comprehension and resultant communicative behaviors in clinical settings.

Martin, G.E., Bartstein, J., Hornickel, J., Matherly, S., Durante, G., & Losh, M. (2017). Signaling of noncomprehension in communication breakdowns in fragile X syndrome, Down syndrome, and autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Communication Disorders, 65, 22–34.

Factors in language development, birth to age seven

This longitudinal study of nearly 2000 children found that the effect of early life and home factors are clear in the early years, but that these “…have played out by age 4.” They also found that “…language abilities are more stable between 4 and 7 than between 2 and 4 years.” Meaning, it’s easier to know if a child will persist with a language disorder by measuring skills at age four than by measuring skills at age two (which many of us have figured out, clinically).
Also, the quality of life was found to be particularly low for the seven-year-olds with low language. These children “…experience significant limitations in school and psychosocial functioning at twice the rate reported in peers with typical language,” including low literacy skills and social–emotional and behavioral skills. Further, the authors state, “Health-related quality of life (HRQL) was measured on the parent-reported Pediatric Quality of Life Scale and “limitations” in HRQL were defined as scores falling ≥1 SD below the sample mean, a level found to be similar to that of children with severe or chronic health conditions such as rheumatic conditions and newly diagnosed cancer in a large population sample.” They state, “…it is a significant concern that children with low language were experiencing (HRQL) limitations at more than twice the frequency reported by their peers with typical language.”
McKean, C., Reilly, S., Bavin, E.L., Bretherton, L., Cini, E., Conway, L. Mensah, F. (2017). Language Outcomes at 7 years: early predictors and co-occurring difficulties. Pediatrics, 139(3).

“Girls Night Out” program for teens with autism

If you’re looking for a social communication intervention to use for teen girlsthis article on Girls Night Out (GNO) is a great place to start. GNO is a peer group therapy program, consisting of weekly evening sessions (2 hours) with a handful of teens with a disability (primarily ASD) and at least equal number of trained peers. GNO teaches: “...(1) relating to others, (2) self-care, and (3) self-determination in social competence and self-perception.” Topics like “Finding My Fashion” are designed to appeal to teen girls, with fun features like “GNO bucks” as part of a token economy. 
The primary function of the article is to describe GNO in detail, while summarizing the evidence behind its design. In some ways, the extensive background section is one of the most valuable parts of the article— the authors do an excellent job of describing the relevant research (e.g. for social skills training). This article is also unique in addressing concerns for older female children with autism. The authors suggest that, “Adolescent females with ASD may experience a “double whammy” as they try to negotiate the increased complexity of social experiences inherent in female adolescent relationships… alongside their impairments in communication and social reciprocity related to ASD.”
The authors conclude with analyses of four years of GNO groups. The range of activities and participants across this extended timeline present challenges for drawing conclusions. Nonetheless, the preliminary data is promising, demonstrating positive gains in self-perception and the girls’ ability to connect with others.

See: Jamison, T.R. & Schuttler, J.O. (2016): Overview and Preliminary Evidence for a Social Skills and Self-Care Curriculum for Adolescent Females with Autism: The Girls Night Out Model. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s10803-016-2939-6

Considering school context for struggling readers

As pediatric and school-based SLPs, we are in a position to not only provide therapy for children who struggle to read, but to serve as advocates for them as well. This article is one that will make you want to raise your advocacy sign and say something about how secondary students who struggle to read are being supported. The paper points to data from Dr. Learned’s larger dissertation, found here... and it’s 314 pages, so those who read that get to pick from the prize box ;)
This article is truly an enjoyable read, and presents almost as a position statement to enact change. For the study, Dr. Learned shadowed eight high school students identified as “struggling readers” throughout their school day. She saw them with different teachers, in different reading situations, and analyzed how these various contexts framed the students’ feelings about reading and skill demonstration. She compared data from these students to peers identified as proficient readers.
Learned starts by suggesting that, “Identification as a struggling reader is problematic because it can lead to narrow skills-based literacy instruction and deficit reader identities.” Further, she found that students’ behaviors and reading data were often blended to label them as “unengaged”. Struggling readers had nearly four times as many behavior referrals. It’s disheartening to read that “by the end of the year, only four of the eight focal participants were still attending ninth grade.” These students overall feel demoralized and disrespected. But not just because the reading is sometimes difficult for them, but because of how they are treated and how they are taughtIn certain school contexts (heavily influenced by their relationship with their teacher and learning environment), these same students expressed positive feelings about themselves at school and demonstrated “proficient or improving reading”. There is a lovely case example in this article to illustrate what this looks like, both from students’ and teachers’ perspectives. Read what “Mr. Henry” does to support his students in the study.
Ultimately, this article has “implications for not only the reconceptualization of adolescent reading difficulty, but also the reorganization of secondary literacy programs.”

See: Learned, J.E. (2016). Feeling like I'm slow because I'm in this class: secondary school contexts and the identification and construction of struggling readers. Reading Research Quarterly. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1002/rrq.157.