The demanding life of students (and how SLPs can help)

Some students find the academic and social demands of school to be challenging and disheartening. They have trouble figuring out the right rules and social behaviours for a school environment. These students often see their peers excel and feel left behind. Here is how an SLP can help students overcome these challenges.

Let me tell you about a girl I know, let’s call her Bella. Bella is an elementary school student. She goes to school every day, but finds the demands of the school day to be much more challenging than her friends do. She is a really sociable girl, but has trouble figuring out what social behaviours and rules would be appropriate for different situations at school.

At the school library, she sees the librarian having a meeting with some other teachers, so she greets each of them loudly and starts asking them about their weekend. She gets scolded because she has interrupted their meeting and is distracting the other people in the library.

In class, she struggles to keep her attention on what the teacher is saying. Instead, her mind wanders to playing with her cat at home. She takes notes on a laptop but gets so absorbed with formatting the page that she’s far behind by the time she actually starts note-taking. While the teacher is talking, her friends nudge her to tell her a hilarious story. She knows it’s important to pay attention to the teacher in class, but she also feels that it’s important to have conversations with her friends, so she can’t decide which task she should pay attention to in the moment.

 While playing with her classmate at recess, they get into a disagreement. Bella loses her temper, yells at her friend, and gets in trouble. Managing her emotions throughout the day is a big challenge for her. She’s upset as she goes back to class. She can’t work because her mind is so focused on how bad she’s feeling and she is distracted for the rest of the day. Because she wasn’t able to get much work done in school, she has extra work that she needs to do at home, which means she’ll have less time for the things she actually wants to do like playing with her cat, pursuing her hobbies, and spending time with her family.

School is tough for Bella, there are just so many demands on her mind at any given time! In addition to the obvious academic demands of school, there are all these other unspoken executive functioning requirements that she needs to meet as well, like paying attention, shifting her attention from one thing to another, planning, prioritizing different activities, inhibiting impulses, social problem-solving, and regulating her emotions. With all these demands placed on Bella, and not many tools for her to deal with them, it’s no wonder school feels overwhelming for her.

When I first sat down with her, I was struck by all the executive functioning goals that we could target. I began to wonder “should I even be working on these goals? I’m a speech-language pathologist (SLP) and Bella doesn’t appear to have any speech-specific or language-specific difficulties!”. This question lingered for several weeks, but the more I thought about it, discussed this with my mentors, and researched, the more it hit home for me that it is, in fact, part of an SLP’s scope to support executive functioning because these skills impact learning and social interactions. By supporting Bella in these foundational areas, I would be supporting her ability to learn, to communicate effectively, and to build positive social relationships.

Armed with that reassurance, I started developing goals with Bella and her school team. We decided to target situational awareness through “reading the room”. If Bella could read the room as she entered it, she would be able to avoid awkward encounters like the one in the library. We targeted social problem-solving by identifying different sized problems, different sized reactions, and using regulation strategies. If Bella could identify the size of problems and regulate her reactions to these problems, she would have tools to monitor and manage her emotions when interacting with her friends. She would also be able to more efficiently return to a ready-to-learn state after encountering a problem during her day. Lastly, we also targeted prioritizing different tasks throughout the day and using reorienting strategies. If Bella could figure out what is important in the moment and get back on track, she would have an easier time of getting her work done at school, so that she would be able to fully use her time at home for other things that she enjoys.


With ongoing support from Bella’s incredible school team as well as her personal motivation to achieve her goals, Bella continues to work hard being at being able to apply these skills with increasing independence. She has even started reading the room by herself and has developed confidence in deciding what to do when she enters a new space. By working on and practicing this range of skills with her school team and SLP, Bella is assembling a well-equipped toolbox she can draw from when dealing with the various learning and social demands that she encounters throughout her day. 


SLP at Meridian Rehabilitation Vancouver