I had a secret weapon when I worked with teenagers in the United States. It immediately cut down the eye rolls when I was there to collect them. These teens actually started conversations with me and not the over way around. And just by association, that teen was a little more interesting to their peers. It was my accent. Being Australian made me kinda cool. But wait… don’t click away because you don’t have an Aussie accent. And no, I’m not suggesting that you start binge watching Australian TV shows to get the accent. My accent was my secret weapon because it made teens interested in me, but it is what I did with that weapon that made the difference.
Life as an SLP was going pretty good if you can ever really say that about working with teens. I mean, there were always drama of some kind, but we got along and worked hard. And then I met this one student. Let’s call him Miguel. Miguel was the sullen teenager that I was afraid I’d meet. The teenager who sat back with arms folded and rarely looked me in the eye. The guy who muttered stuff under his breath, while shaking his head. Who wouldn’t participate in conversation, and walked 5 steps behind me. The teenager who said to me “I don’t want to be here, okay” and treated me like the enemy.
It’s confronting dealing with someone who doesn’t want to be there. Stickers and promises of a game on the iPad doesn’t work with teenagers. They have likely been in therapy for their whole schooling life, and are still ‘stuck’ on an IEP. They know how this works. They have figured ‘speech’ out. They don’t want to be there. Being super bubbly and up-beat doesn’t work. Being cool (but not to the point of un-cool) doesn’t work. Being relaxed and just kinda chilled doesn’t work. Trying not to be an SLP but a friend doesn’t work. Their attitude stays the same. Teens can hold on to a
grudge idea for an exceptionally long period of time. So this is what I found that does work.
Being bloody honest.
You know how I mentioned that it was what you do with your secret weapon that makes the difference? Well, I called this teen out. I stopped being nice, down-to-earth and flexible. I was actually quite the opposite. I called this teen out and it was one of the toughest things that I have done as a therapist because getting stern with teenagers can go in a couple of different directions. And yes, I probably raised my voice a little and I may have used my pointer finger to get my message across, but I was ‘done’ at that point too.
“I know that you don’t like being here and that you don’t like me. I get it. I pull you out of class in front of all of your friends. But do you know what? You are really behind all of your classmates. These are your scores and this is where I need you to be. The only way that you can get out of speech is to get a score within this range. So you can just sit here and ignore me. Go ahead, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But the longer you act like this, the longer you will be in speech. So really, it’s up to you, mate”.
I pulled out those subtest scores, drew the bell curve and plotted Miguel’s scores, including where I needed him to be. I talked percentile ranks and standard scores and he just sat and listened. I didn’t walk him back to class the way I usually did, because I was over it too. I was over being treated this way when I was simply just doing my job.
The next week when I came to pick up Miguel, he had a completely changed attitude. He worked hard and I could see that he had a motivation now. He had a goal, and that was to get out of speech and never have to see my face again. Most surprisingly, he was respectful. He greeted me and said goodbye and it was totally not what I was expecting. Miguel changed schools a few months later, with an IEP following him, but I was glad that at least he knew why he was seeing me and I really hope that he ‘got out’.
The bottom line is this: teenagers should be treated like adults. They want to be taken seriously and they want you to know that they’re not kids anymore, so talk to them like an adult. Make them part of the decision making process.
And don’t be afraid to be bloody honest with them.
I’m no sugar-coater. If you want a refreshingly honest read, check out some related posts and follow my blog so that the posts come to your inbox: Confessions of an SLP Who Didn’t Like Working in Schools and Using YouTube in Speech Therapy (don’t make my mistakes).