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Guest Post: Becoming a Mindful Observer during Your Speech Sessions

Today’s awesome guest post is brought to you by Kimberly Scanlon of Scanlon Speech Therapy. 

Can I tell you a secret? When I was a young girl I wanted to be a detective. I loved Nancy Drew and daydreamed about being a real life Harriet the spy. Flash forward 20 years, I’m a speech language pathologist and mom. The closest I get to being a spy is eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations. This, of course, drives my husband nuts. Consider yourself warned if you ever sit at the table next to me.

Well, one thing I did pick up from my younger days of spying is how to be a pretty good observer. I love reading facial and body expressions. This quirky preoccupation actually helps to maximize my therapy sessions. But, you know what? When I’m stressed and rushing around, my keen powers of observation are greatly diminished.

I’m sure you’ve had one of those hectic days. When your mind is racing and you feel like you’re running on autopilot? In a world where we are constantly plugged in, rushing, and stressed, it’s easy to stop observing. It’s easier to rely on our past experiences and knowledge. It’s easier to …assume.

To assume you know Johnny’s going to have a meltdown if he doesn’t get his way.

To assume Mr. Smith wants to eat mashed potatoes and not pureed sweet peas.

To assume Claire won’t sit in the chair because she hasn’t in the past.

I mean after all, we’re the treating clinician with a specialized skill set and we know our clients…right? Well, you know what they say when you assume

Before you start feeling guilty, remember – we’re only human. Additionally, there are times when relying on educated assumptions may help us be more efficient and effective. However, when you’re constantly in rush mode and seeing client after client, resident after resident, student after student, patient after patient, it’s easy to jump to conclusions based on assumptions. It’s easy to stop observing.

As speech language pathologists, why is it so important for us to be good observers? I’ll give you a few reasons. If you can think of more, please comment and share below!

  1. Makes us better clinicians.

Behavior is communication. Body language is communication. When we stop observing, we risk overlooking important non-verbal signs of communication. Observing these non-verbal signs can help us better meet the needs and wants of our clients. I read somewhere that 80% (or something like that) of communication is nonverbal. The experts disagree a little on the percentage, but the point is – it’s high! If we ask the mother of a toddler, “Do you agree?” or “Will you try this strategy?” and, she says “Yes” but rolls her eyes, what happens if we missed the mom rolling her eyes? We would miss a great opportunity to initiate a dialogue (“Is this an unrealistic expectation? If so, why?”). In a case like this, it may be better to ask a busy parent, “What can you do to help carryover at home?” When we miss behaviors, we miss chances to better meet our clients’ needs and wants and to make their treatment more successful.

  1. Helps us troubleshoot.

When we’re actively observing, we’re more likely to notice patterns. This in turn helps us troubleshoot during our sessions.

An obvious observation may be that Benjamin, a 7 year old boy with Autism, has a tantrum whenever the session ends without warning. If so, Benjamin may need a verbal or visual cue to prepare him that the session will soon be coming to an end. A less obvious observation about Benjamin may be what he doesn’t do in certain situations. For instance, when you were reading picture books together, you carefully notice that he’s not looking at the pictures, only the numbers on the bottom corner of the pages. Because you were observant (and doing your job J), you could do something about it. How could you troubleshoot this?

  1. Gives our clients time to think and further develop skills.

How often do we experience moments of uninterrupted thought? Isn’t it golden? When you observe, most likely you’re quiet. When you’re quiet, your client has time to explore, attend, problem solve and initiate without any distractions. Our training dictates that pausing and waiting is important, but how often do we get so anxious or excited to see changes that it’s hard to wait? We feel pressured “to make” our client do something. It’s easy for this pressure to get in the way. And, sometimes it does. But, when we model thoughtful observation we naturally convey patience and respectfulness to our clients. How powerful.

So, how can we become better observers?

6 ways to become a better observer (especially during those stressful times)

  1. Think like a child. Don’t lose your sense of wonder. Be curious.
  2. Make daily observation checks a part of your session. I like to have exact moments during a session when I’m consciously quiet and I ONLY observe. I give my client a task, an activity, a toy, anything…then I ONLY observe him think, interact, touch and manipulate…I don’t daydream, I don’t write notes, I don’t bite my nails, I only observe.
  3. Stop assuming. Sometimes relying on preconceived notions leads us down the wrong path. When you’re not sure about something, observe, ask or purposely violate your own expectations (as long as it’s safe – safety is always first!).
  4. Discover what to look for. Become an expert in one area or one disorder. Study it day and night. Then carefully observe for specific hallmarks, patterns, or distinctions.
  5. Slow down. Life is short. Too short. SLOW DOWN. Smell the roses. Breathe, count to five, and intentionally move at a slower pace. It’s amazing how much you take in when you deliberately slow down.
  6. Change it up. If you’re stuck in a rut, change up your routine. Eat lunch outside, go for a walk, listen to fresh music, buy new toys, or try different activities.  

Can you think of some more ways? If so, please share.

Kimberly Scanlon, M.A. CCC-SLP, is a speech language pathologist practicing in Bergen County, NJ. She treats children and adults through her private practice Scanlon Speech Therapy, LLC. Recently, she published her first book, My Toddler Talks: Strategies and Activities to Promote Your Child’s Language Development. To learn more, please visit,

“People who love work, love life.” – Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Becoming a Mindful Observer during Your Speech Sessions

  1. I really love to observe and analysis some of my clients that are on the spectrum because it really helps me find things that they love! I would also say “try new stuff” even though your observations may say “this child can’t do this activity based on the skills you are seeing.” Trying new activities has helped me to find what works and definitely what doesn’t work! Thanks for this post.

  2. Love this post! I too feel like being a therapist is really detective work and I am always looking for patterns of behaviors, connections between antecedent and behavior to know how best to change what I am doing to support my clients. I very much love how easy and friendly this read is. Sharing!!!

  3. Dear Felice and Communication Station, thanks so much for your feedback. I really enjoyed writing this post and I’m happy you both enjoyed it! Felice, great point about “trying new stuff”! I definitely agree.

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