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Guest Post: Forming and Cultivating Positive Relationships with Middle School Students

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Today’s guest post on working with middle school students comes from  Zoya Tsirulnikov, MS CCC-SLP, TSSLD , an SLP from the NYC’s Department of Education. 

The middle school population is fun and exciting to work with, however  it may prove to be quite challenging for some SLPs. This is my fifth year working for the New York City Department of Education at the Middle School level. I started out working with high school and elementary school students and quickly realized that this particular age group is different from its younger and older counterparts. Whereas at the elementary grades, students are learning new skills and concepts and building the foundation for expository text, the middle school students are expected to have bridged over to more rigorous text. Therefore, the achievement gap is very noticeable since students are tackling more de-contextualized discourse.

The reading and writing expectations get more complex starting with 4th grade with students doing more critical and abstract thinking (ASHA Technical Report 2008).  In high school, I have come across many students who continue to work on foundational skills to catch up to their peers. These students often display many negative behaviors, such as learned helplessness, and may be challenging to work with. At the middle school level, the speech language therapist still has the ability to change students’ perspectives and teach self-advocacy.

In this post, I will explore the SLP’s role in the Middle School setting, discuss ways to foster cooperation with the students for a mutually beneficial relationship as well as provide some intervention strategies for select target areas.

Getting to Know the Students on your Caseload

SLPs must allocate sufficient time to gain a full and complete picture of each student’s strengths and difficulties. We are usually pressed for time and are so data driven that we may forget about the person involved. We also concentrate heavily on weaknesses and have to remind ourselves to appreciate the strengths the students demonstrate. Strategically using mastered skills and building upon them with scaffolds will be rewarding and motivating for the students. Each student comes with his/her own perception of therapy and specific view of themselves as a student. Understanding this attitude is key to forming a positive therapeutic relationship.

I feel that middle school students have a fairly strong idea of how they are performing in school (e.g. the subjects they favor are generally those they excel in). Acknowledging their feelings towards certain subjects is important along with then delving deeper to understand what skills pose difficulty. Therapy should be relevant to the student so that it is motivating! SLPs should also use appropriate resources and modify their language as needed. For instance, I have seen a number of students withdraw from the activity when the text was too dense or because a particular skill was the focus of that day.

The Workload Approach (Ehren, 2009) involves the SLP taking on a more encompassing role, which involves providing direct services as well as contributing information to others about students, along with participating in school events. I think that SLPs have an important role in the school setting as they work so hard to aid students in navigating the demanding curriculum. Building rapport from the beginning means directly expressing to students why they are in therapy, what their goals are, what activities they should expect, and emphasizing their part in all of this. I find that middle school students value honesty and appreciate learning strategies to help them succeed in school.

Collaborating and Communicating

I cannot emphasize enough the word COMMUNICATION when working in any school setting. We must make an effort to speak with the classroom teachers, the Guidance Counselor, the Parent Coordinator, Administration, family, and, of course, the student regarding the student’s needs, goal, progress, and academic performance. Although middle school students may still lack the maturity to fully understand their specific areas of difficulty and needs, they still should be included in the therapeutic relationship. For example, middle school students are generally not present in the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting when the team gets together to discuss present levels of performance, goals, and individual needs and accommodations.

SLPs should explain to the students what skills and strategies they are working on and why. This partnership, I found, has led to greater cooperation and carry-over of skills to other settings. Continuous and meaningful communication about goals and progress will allow students to generalize skills and succeed at school (Ehren, 2007). I often use materials from the classroom to work on speech and language goals. I let the teacher know what we are doing in therapy and how the students are progressing. The students are motivated to work on material from class as they will be graded on it. Also, they find the scaffolding beneficial to understanding the complex content. My experience is that teachers appreciate the support to help students access the curriculum. Middle school students tend to work increasingly with expository text, which is de-contextualized and taxing. I have noticed that students who express what was difficult and analyze their learning process tend to show great gains. Continual conversations are integral to reaching the student and making an impact in their lives.

Assessing Students and Monitoring Progress

School based SLPs will find the Response to Intervention (RTI) framework worthwhile to consider. I participated in conversations about students who are struggling and offered input. I work with students who have IEP based speech mandates, however I have also done screenings of at-risk students as well as worked with students who benefited from additional support in the area of speech-language.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) include expectations in speaking, reading, writing, and listening. The speech-language therapist must incorporate CCSS into therapy so that sessions are relevant and meaningful to the student. Students should be assessed given various texts, i.e. narrative and expository, as per curriculum using different modalities. Dynamic assessment provides important information on students who are culturally and linguistically diverse. The student has to be observed in the classroom as performance may greatly vary.

Middle school students tend to care a lot about socialization and, therefore, may act differently depending on the audience and setting. Different factors interact together, which may make generalization of skills challenging.  I try to break down tasks into parts and determine what scaffolding is necessary for each skill set. For instance, to write an essay, the student must know how to write an effective paragraph. Monitoring student progress is necessary and important and will guide therapy and conversations with teachers. Ehren (transcript 2011) discusses two types of progress monitoring, benchmark to compare students’ skills to the expectations of the Common Core Standards, and formative to determine students’ foundation and development of skills as they are learning. Middle school students should be encouraged to use strategies and advocate for themselves so they think about their progress within the curriculum.

Helpful Strategies:

Reading Fluency:

  • re-read text for more fluent reading/decoding
  • syllabify (break apart) multisyllabic words
  • monitor prosody to give appropriate meaning/emphasis
  • note the punctuation in the sentence to make natural pauses
  • look at the context to help with decoding as well as comprehension of novel vocabulary words

Comprehension and Critical Thinking:

  • ask questions before, during, and after reading
  • chunk information into smaller parts
  • use self-talk (think-aloud) to explain and problem-solve
  • visualize characters and setting and describe as if in a movie
  • re-read text for clarification and deeper understanding
  • take notes and selectively highlight relevant words
  • use context clues to comprehend novel vocabulary
  • self-test comprehension
  • use graphic organizers, e.g. K-W-L chart, T-chart to organize information 


  • define assessment words such as justify, synthesize, etc.,
  • identify audience and purpose
  • brainstorm ideas
  • organize thinking with a graphic organizer
  • outline important points
  • refer to text/resources when writing
  • ask questions regarding the content and included vocabulary (e.g. do my body paragraphs support the thesis)
  • use a proofreading checklist to correct syntax, add transitional words/phrases for cohesion 

Executive Function:

  • identify distractions and triggers in the environment (e.g. peers, materials, seating, the complexity of task)
  • use a time for activities to increase sustained attention
  • note the location of the teacher and important items, such as the homework bin
  • face the speaker when listening
  • organize work into different folders and notebooks
  • use organizational checklists for classroom and home routines
  • make mnemonic devices to remember information

References and Resources:

  • Blosser J., Roth F. P., Paul D. R., Ehren B. J., Nelson N. W., Sturm J. M.  (2012). Integrating the Core. The ASHA Leader.
  • Ehren B. J. (2009). Response-to-Intervention SLPs as Linchpins in Secondary Schools. The ASHA Leader.
  • 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.
  • National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (2008). Adolescent Literacy and Older Students With Learning Disabilities [Technical Report]. Available from
  • RTI Action Network (2011). Speech-Language Pathologists and RTI.  [Transcript]. Available on

20130321_120427Bio: Zoya Tsirulnikov, MS CCC-SLP, TSSLD received her Master’s Degree from Columbia University, Teachers College in 2007.  She also holds the Certificate of Clinical Competence (CCC-SLP) from the American Speech-Language- Hearing Association (ASHA) and Teacher of Students with Speech and Language Disabilities (TSSLD) certification. She has been working at the NYC Department of Education for almost seven years with elementary, middle, and high school students. Aside from working in the school setting, Zoya has worked in early intervention with children ages 0-3 and has provided private therapy.

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