May 8, 2007 Feature

SLPs in Secondary Schools: Going Beyond Survival to "Thrival"

Second in a Four-Part Series on Educational Leadership

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THRIVAL, not Survival

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In my vision of secondary school services, I see happy, thriving adolescents and happy, thriving speech-language pathologists serving them. This vision is not associated with the notion of "survival" in secondary schools. Survival brings to mind a picture of teens shuffling around the halls with hangdog expressions, squeaking by with barely passing grades, and being served by determined SLPs doing their best, but sighing frequently in frustration at not being able to make enough of a difference.

We need to go beyond survival and coin a new word—"thrival"—that calls to mind a more appealing picture for the way things should be in secondary schools. In this vision, SLPs are not just getting by but are enthusiastically helping students. This picture is actually a collage, with some snapshots focused individually on the SLP and others on the SLP in relation to students

If I were back in the schools, I would couple this vision with self-talk—things I would I say to myself to keep on track. What follows are the mantras that would guide my practice to meet the dual goals of thriving as a productive professional and helping students thrive in school and in life.

Thriving as a Professional

  • Beware the Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty beckons, "Give me your tired, your poor..." For SLPs to thrive as productive professionals, we should not have an open-door policy in which we take on all problems. We should work tirelessly—but in balance—to accomplish what we can within our capacity and control. As an example, the role of an academic tutor is one we should reject.

  • Refuse to be overwhelmed. Schools are complex systems; student success is a complex business. As we redefine roles, adding more work to our already full plates may lead to being so overwhelmed that we enjoy neither our jobs nor our lives in general. We need to work smarter. Some of our traditional practices may need to be reviewed as we think about new ways of doing business. We need to define our workload judiciously, with a willingness to give up outdated practices.

  • Anonymity is not advantageous. When the principal leaves us alone, it is not good. If the school leader is not aware of what we are doing in some detail, he or she cannot be called on to support our efforts. We may think that anonymity provides less stress, but in the long run, it provides more stress. An SLP who is a "mystery guest" in a secondary school will not be in line to receive resources, nor out in front to provide leadership on behalf of students struggling with language.

  • Call me anything but the "speech teacher." Back in the old days when we primarily provided speech therapy, "speech teacher" is what we were called. That label stuck because other educators do not understand our roles with language and literacy. If we believe that language shapes our thoughts—which I do—then allowing colleagues to call us by this label allows them to keep us in the "speech box." If we want significant roles with language and literacy, a title with the word "language" in it is essential. I'm OK with the term "SLP."

  • Articulate unique contributions. We need to be front-and-center resources in the schools, articulating a clear role identity, especially with respect to language and literacy. This role set includes three unique contributions. SLPs should focus on the language and related cognitive underpinnings of literacy and the curriculum, use a language lens, and take a diagnostic/prescriptive approach. However, making these three unique contributions isn't enough. We have to explain to others what we have to offer and how these contributions can make a difference in student success and in a school's meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP) requirements.

  • Let the Lone Ranger RIP. None of our roles can be accomplished successfully in isolation. We cannot go it alone in the schools at any instructional level. We need to be in close collaboration with teachers.

  • Ride in on a "low horse." This suggested action is the opposite of riding in on a high horse—coming off as the expert who will save the day. The alternative is to make humble, tactful offers to learn from teachers. to make suggestions as appropriate, and to value and respect equally competent partners with different areas of expertise.

Helping Students Thrive in School and in Life

  • Start with the end in mind (backward design). As we help students thrive in school and in life, we should employ "backward design" (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998) by starting with the end in mind. To do this, begin by defining student success, including the literacy and curriculum standards the student must meet, and then approach intervention from the perspective of the language and related cognitive underpinnings needed to access literacy and curriculum.

  • Consider that intervention and delivery are intertwined. As we consider various intervention approaches, we must recognize that we have to be able to actually deliver the intervention, making service delivery models an equally important thrival issue. For example, if we target the teaching of literacy strategies, we must have sufficient time to deliver this intervention effectively. Sixty minutes of pull-out won't do it.

  • Maintain a therapeutic focus for students with speech-language impairment. For students with speech-language impairment (SLI), we must maintain a therapeutic focus—with the appropriate degree of intensity—that will likely be achieved only with collaboration.

  • Provide assistance to teachers. In addition to working directly with students who have SLI, we need to offer assistance to teachers, not just for the students we serve, but for other struggling learners as well. Taking this broader view of a workload enhances our value to schools and has the potential to impact more students.

  • Start as whole as you can; go as "part" as you have to. This principle means that we must analyze the level of granularity at which intervention targets should begin, so as not to waste time on skills that are too discrete and add to the difficulty of generalization.

  • Don't fight two battles at once. In working with students, we need to take care not to overwhelm them or compound the complexity of intervention by focusing on too much at one time. Scaffolding intervention carefully is a must.

  • Engage adolescent students as partners. A key principle in working with adolescents is to engage them in the process of learning. These students should actively participate in setting goals and monitoring progress. Viewing teens as partners in the intervention process is critical to success.

These mantras, coupled with a positive vision of secondary school services, would provide a successful frame of reference in working with adolescents. They would help me thrive as a productive professional, as well as help students thrive in school and in life. If you are an SLP serving adolescents you, too, might picture yourself taking the "thrival" route! 

Barbara J Ehren, is an SLP and research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning in Lawrence, Kans. In the fall, she will become director of the doctoral program in language and literacy at the University of Central Florida, Orlando, Fla. Contact her at

cite as: Ehren, B. J. (2007, May 08). SLPs in Secondary Schools: Going Beyond Survival to "Thrival" : Second in a Four-Part Series on Educational Leadership. The ASHA Leader.


Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association Supervision and Curriculum Development. 


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