How Not to Be A “Karen” SLP – Part 3

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In the last post, I discussed some ways SLPs working EI can rethink and reimagine what they’re doing to honor the family’s cultural background. These include recognizing the immense power imbalance that exists between you, as the SLP, and the family. It includes recognizing that not all families and cultures expect parents to be teachers. It includes refraining from recommending CDS as an intervention strategy and finding ways to provide more input and interaction that don’t include “speaking in an exciting voice” and gesturing. This includes the very powerful, yet simple act of asking what the family wants, not telling them what they need.

Now, let’s tackle the preschool crowd. These are kids who may have aged out or whose families may have dropped out of EI because it wasn’t working for them. Preschool kids from CLD backgrounds may go to a school-district sponsored preK program if they are eligible for an IEP. Or, they may attend state-funded preK programs or Head Start. Many of CLD kids don’t attend private or commercial preschool programs, partly because of the cost and partly because many families believe it’s the role of parents or grandparents to rear young children. But, keep in mind, many of these same families don’t believe it is the parent’s or grandparent’s role to be a teacher. That means, many preK children from CLD backgrounds will be exposed to the tasks and associated language of activities of daily living (e.g., doing laundry, cooking), but they might not be learning early academic concepts like shapes, colors, or numbers.

If you’re working with a preK kid from a CLD background outside of a structured preK program, you’re very likely working with them in a clinic or at home. That brings up one of the first questions you need to ask; who does the child spend the most time with? It may not be the parents. The child may spend the most time with grandparents or aunts/uncles or older siblings. How much interaction does the child have with other children in the family. Ask how old those children are. What activities do the children engage in together? How well is the child able to play with other children? How are children of the same age expected to help around the house? How well is the child able to do those things? What things would the family like the child to be able to do?

These are very different questions than, “Do they know their colors?”, “Can they identify basic shapes?” The reality is, there’s plenty of time to teach those academic concepts as the child gets older. Focus on the needs of the family and the needs of the child to be able to participate as fully as possible within the family unit.

Because, the number one way to not be a “Karen” SLP is to remember it’s not about you!

In most cases, the family’s concerns will not include being able to follow directions. There is no reason to have receptive language goals just because that’s what you learned in grad school. The reality is you’re still judging expressive language and/or other behaviors when you work on following directions or identifying objects by attribute or category. If a family does have concerns about a child’s ability to follow directions – or if you have legitimate concerns – then, certainly, it’s appropriate to address them. But, be aware that what you really may be addressing is task familiarity and vocabulary. If you call it a “pail” and the child calls it a “bucket”, what looks like an inability to follow directions is really a matter of vocabulary differences. Also, be aware that in many cultures that follow what most of us consider to be more “traditional” gender roles (e.g., men work outside of the home, women take care of the home and children), cultural transmission of those values begins very early. The preK-age boys growing up in Punjabi culture may not have an issue following directions at all. They may just have an issue following your directions because boys are not asked to do those things at home!

Another way to not be a “Karen” SLP…make sure your goals are learnable so your clients make progress that’s observable to everyone. If you’re working on the same goals with every preschool client, you’re being a Karen. Differentiate your goals. Develop learnable goals for every client. Your clients and your clients’ families will thank you. Some preK children can tolerate the “drill and kill” inherent in speech sound intervention. Many preschoolers just can’t yet. And, did you know the research shows you can get almost as much change in speech sound development if you work on expressive morphosyntax (grammar)? (This is why ASHA and your state board require continuing ed, you know!)

I’m not talking about working on expanding noun phrases here. (If you do this, you know what I’m talking about – making the kid learn to say, “I want green marker” just to expand their mean length of utterances.) So, let’s get real here. Who talks like that? Do you? Then why are you teaching your clients something they’re going to have to “unlearn” later? I have never understood the group think behind talking to clients this way nor teaching clients to “talk” this way. That’s right, I said it. This has always sounded like a dumb idea to me, especially coming from those who claim receptive language precedes expressive language. I mean, if that’s really the case, then doesn’t that completely negate the argument for providing grammatically incorrect input to clients.

I digress…

Let’s get back to eliminating Karen-ism in language intervention. Start with learning more about linguistics. In my opinion, if you’re working with this population and you don’t know what a copula and auxiliary are and/or you don’t know what part of speech “in” and “not” are, you really shouldn’t be teaching language skills to other people’s children. Sadly, most monolingual American English speakers know nothing about the structure of their own dialect, let alone their own language.

Once you know basic American English grammar, then you can get down to the business of teaching language skills. Start by teaching kids how to ask yes/no and WH-questions. That’s right, ask not answer. Yes, they’re going to make mistakes. If they were acquiring language typically, they wouldn’t be on your caseload. So, use techniques like structural priming. Use a pacing board (which will allow you to bill for non-SGD intervention, too.) Don’t know what those things are? Feel free to contact me and I can provide resources and examples.

You’ll want to focus on negation, too. Negation in English is tough. It requires verb inversion and changing the verb phrase from a copula to an auxiliary phrase (e.g., “He likes ice cream” becomes “He doesn’t like ice cream.”) Isn’t learnability great?!

Under no circumstances do you teach subjective pronouns separate from the verb phrase. You’re wasting everyone’s time when you write a goal to address “incorrect” pronoun use. The pronoun errors are driven by a lack of knowledge of verb tense and verb phrase construction, not a lack of knowledge about pronouns. Now you know…

And speaking of knowing…how much do you know about African American English and all of its variants? How much do you know about Spanish-influenced English? How much do you know about Appalachian English? These dialects can vary widely from Mainstream American English. And, you’re an SLP. It’s your job to know whether the way a child speaks is the result of dialect differences or language delays or a language disorder. I’m not saying you have to know everything about every one of the 24-30 American English dialects. I know I don’t. But, I’m saying you have to know what dialect(s) your clients and their communities speak. Non-Karen SLPs already know they are working to help their clients communicate as effectively as possible within their communities. Non-Karen SLPs already know they aren’t working to make their clients speak MAE if that’s not the dialect they’re learning. Why is this an issue? Because in AAE and in Appalachian English, it’s common for speakers to double mark negation (e.g., “He don’t want no more”). That’s not a bug, it’s a feature of both dialects. It’s very common for kids using Spanish-influenced English to confuse in/on because they collapse to the same preposition en in Spanish. If you think those are error patterns, you just might be a Karen SLP. And, I haven’t even touched on the phonological differences between the dialects.

In the next post, I’ll talk about some of the effects of colonial systems on the language development of school-age children. Yes, we can already see the effects of systems of oppression on children’s language in preK and early school years. If you want a good primer on these effects, I highly recommend Hart & Risley’s (1995) book, Meaningful Differences in Everyday Experiences of Young American Children (available here). In 1995, we didn’t talk about systems of oppression and their effects, but the influence of those systems are clear in the adults’ interactions with young children and the young children’s language development.

As always, thank you for reading. I look forward to your thoughts, comments, and questions!

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