Back-to-School Parent Letter

Back to SchoolIf you have a student with special needs, and especially if he has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), or 504 Plan*  I strongly recommend writing a friendly letter to his teacher(s) at the beginning of the new school year.

In my experience, whether going up one grade in your school, or changing schools entirely, your new teacher(s) may not receive notification that your student has special needs, or may need classroom accommodations.  First impressions are very important so you want to avoid getting off on the wrong foot with a new teacher.   A teacher who is not aware of special needs may think “bad behavior = trouble kid” at first.  You can avoid this.   In the first week of school I write to my son’s teachers.  The letter includes the following:

  • Introduce myself and my student
  • Inform them of my student’s diagnosis, and that he has an IEP (or 504) and encourage them to read my student’s file.  (A copy of this file is usually kept at your student’s school.)
  • Note any areas of difficulty that may be observed in the classroom
  • Note what techniques help (I usually refer to the modifications page of his IEP.)
  • Encourage the teacher to contact me at any time if an issue or problem arises.

Parents, I encourage you to be proactive and strive to work with your school to provide the best education for your special needs student.  Make a good first impression on your student’s teacher(s) and you’ll be off to a good start this school year.


* The “504” in “504 plan” refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act , which says that no one with a disability can be excluded from participating in federally-funded programs or activities, including elementary, secondary or post-secondary schooling.


A Closer Look at Pronouncing -ed Endings

aCloserLookatPronouncing-edEndings/t/, /d/ or /Id/?

When pronouncing the regular past tense verbs we have three choices in English.  The rules are simple and straight forward, with only a few exceptions.

The spelling is always the same, but when pronouncing, there are three choices.

1.  If the verb ends with a /t/ or /d/ sound, you add an /Id/ so words like “wanted” are pronounced like /wan  tId/.  YES, PRONOUNCE THE VOWEL IN “-ed”!

2.  If the verb ends in a voiceless sound – /p/, /k/, /f/, /s/, /ch/ /sh/, you add the sound voiceless /t/ so words like “missed” are pronounced like /mIst/.  NO PRONOUNCING THE VOWEL IN “-ed” !

3.  If the verb ends in a voiced sound – /b/, /g/, /v/, /th/, /z/, /m/, /n/, /ng/, /l/, /r/, /zh/  and any vowel, you add the sound voiced /d/ so words like “moved” are pronounced like /muvd/.  NO PRONOUNCING THE VOWEL IN “-ed” !

See this free printable for easy practice -ed words.

Diagnosis & the Stages of Grief

My work has put me in the path of a number of families with children with disabilities. I have observed some parents are well-prepared for hearing their child’s diagnosis. Some have been looking for a way to explain the differences they see in their child, and I only come along and confirm what they were suspicious of: learning disability, adhd, apraxia, autism, etc….

I have seen diagnosis from both sides. As a therapist helping families, AND as a mom when my son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

StagesOfGriefI learned to see Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grief clearly in the process of having my own child diagnosed with autism. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, described 5 stages one goes through when dealing with the death of a loved one. These 5 stages can be equally applied to what parents go through when their child is diagnosed with an illness, autism, or a learning disability.

Denial – I thought “This can’t be happening to us, to my son, to our family.” Denial was the protection that kept me going every day when problems with our son were churning all around us.

Anger –  “Why us?” I was mad.   And under my anger I was in pain. I was short-tempered, I was frustrated, and my family got the brunt of my painful, angry behavior.

Bargaining – “Please God” I prayed, “Just take this away and I will never (fill in the blank) again.” My mind raced with all sorts of thoughts to bargain with God for this situation to be different.

Depression – Reality set in. My kid was different. My kid had serious behavior problems. The school we were in was not going to work out. The dreams I had for our lives and activities together were fading away. My hopes of the family life I envisioned were dying. I was sad. Life looked very grim.

Acceptance – Slowly I began to be OK with our situation. I began to see the progress of his therapy sessions. I could see the improvements my son was making. I met other families with kids with autism. I was learning to accept the situation I was in. It was not what I wanted, but I was OK with it, and I was learning how to be pro-active in my life, and with my son.

The journey through the stages of grief was never smooth and seamless for me. I sometimes moved back-and-forth between the 5 stages, but when things got tough, I found it helpful to adjust my expectations. I wouldn’t have asked specifically for autism at the beginning of my parenting life, but many features of my life have been interesting, and the difficulties we’ve endured have smoothed the rough edges off of me.


The Best Parenting Advice I Ever Got

I made friends with a dear woman, a young mother, and she has sometimes asked my advice on different parenting issues.  I confess, after 20 years of parenting (can it be that long?) and having one of my children diagnosed on the autism spectrum, I have my share of parenting advice.  So for fun, and with the hope it will be of use to you, here are the best bits of advice I ever got about parenting:

When baby is asleep, you get in bed too.  You need your rest and practically everything in your house can wait.

Say what you mean and mean what you say.   If you say to your child, ‘we’ll go in 5 minutes’, and you keep chatting with your friend for 20 minutes, you have just taught you child what you say has no value.  If you can’t follow-through, do not speak it.  If you do speak it, follow through!

Never criticize or yell at them on the way to school.  Your voice will be ringing in their little heads all day long.

Once they learn to do something, THAT is now THEIR JOB.  Can your child tie her shoes?  Pick up her room?  Brush her own teeth?  Now she gets to do that job.  Don’t you do it anymore.

Never compare your special needs child to his peers.  Only compare him to how well HE did a year ago.  Is he making progress?  That’s all that matters.

Don’t lecture or keep going on and on.  Say what you have to say and be quiet.  If you continue on and on, your child will surely develop “mommy deafness”.   The silence after you speak is for your child to consider what you said and decide how your information will be integrated into his life.

Decide your dinner plan by 8am each day.  That way you will defrost, or plan to get yourself to the grocery store to get the ingredients you need for supper.  Some people even plan their meals out a week in advance.  Not me, I was never THAT organised!




How Can I Get Rid Of My Accent?

how do I get rid of my accent?First things first – everyone has an accent!  I bet you didn’t realize that.  But it’s true.  You may find when you are learning a new language like American English, that your accent gets in the way.  When this happens you begin to think “How can I get rid of my accent?”

The answer is “You can’t.”   You can’t get rid of it completely, but you can make your errors seem less noticeable.  That’s where accent reduction lessons can help.  With accent reduction lessons (also called accent modification or American English accent training) you often work with a speech-language pathologist specially trained to teach you how to speak American English like a native speaker.

Your teacher will emphasise correct pronunciation of American English sounds, words stress and sentence stress, linking sounds together in running speech, common reductions, and the melody and intonation patterns that will help you to sound more American.

What’s your part?  You need to spend focused time listening and imitating American English.  One quick way to get a handle on an American English accent is to mimic an American speaking your language.  This is called reverse accent mimicry.  Just speak your language the way you may have heard an American speak it – by mimicking an American accent while speaking your language, you will trigger areas of your brain that control speech learning and accent.  Then make these same sounds when speaking American English.  You should see an improvement.

Try accent reduction books with CDs.  If you are an auditory learner the recordings will be helpful, and if you are a visual learner read along in the book while you listen.

Set a goal for yourself .  You could select one sound.  Many speakers from Asian countries can improve American R (made in the back of the mouth) and L (made near the front of the mouth).  Many speaker from Latin countries can improve TH sounds and add voicing to Z sounds.  Find out your trouble sounds and try to improve them on purpose.

Let friends or co-workers know that you are working on improving your accent.  Many Americans are too polite to correct words someone is pronouncing wrong, but if you let them know you want their feedback, I’m sure they will be happy to provide that.

Good luck with your accent learning,  and keep up the good work!



A year with Georgie, a student with autism


Five-year-old Georgie and his mother, Susan (not their real names), came to see me at the speech clinic because he was not talking enough. “Other kids say much more than him,” she complained on the phone. When I greeted him in my office, Susan whispered in his ear, “Say hi to Teacher!” Without looking at me, Georgie echoed, “Say hi to Teacher!” Georgie probably had autism, something his mother seemed unaware of.

Working with Georgie started with a bang.  He spent the first session naming every animal on the posters of my office.  “Tiger!” “Leopard!” “Orangatan!” “Cow!” “Sheep!” “Pig!” He was a “namer”. So I pulled out the animal book. “Let’s look at these animals.” First up were animals on the farm. I began, “These are all animals on the ….”

He smiled and shouted “Horse!” (He was still naming.)

“Yes, that’s a horse, Georgie. These are all animals on the…”

“Cow!”  Georgie shouted.

“Yes, That’s a cow!  These are all animals on the…”

“Horse!” he shouted.

Time to give up on catagories. I answered my own question “These are all animals on the… farm.” I said it slowly so Georgie would hear the words.

Then I heard him repeat, “on the farm.” Georgie started his sentence before I was finished with mine.

Echolalia, the immediate repetition of words spoken by another person, is a common experience for toddlers, just learning language. But it should disappear by the age of three. Georgie, at five, was well past the age of using echolalia.

a student with autismNOVEMBER

We continued to work on simple back-and-forth conversation. In therapy Georgie has lots to say, rather he has lots to name. He did call out the things he saw, and to the untrained listener he seemed bright. He seemed to know a lot. Where he broke down was in the give-and-take of language and social interchanges. I say hello, and he might say hello. I comment on the weather or the activity, and he misses it completely. I ask a question and he calls out something completely unrelated that caught his eye, or perhaps he was thinking about. Communicating with Georgie needed to be purposeful on my part. He probably wouldn’t participate with me at all if I did not push my way into his world.

Once we played with blocks, long and short, with different shapes naming them as we played.  He found all the cylinder blocks and stacked them up one on top of the other on the table, “Rocket!” he cried. He was so proud of his creation! I was proud of him. Then I tried to get him to put the blocks away, to do the next activity. “No” came the protest, and he melted down. No more playing, no more communicating, only crying and refusing. His inflexibility was getting in the way of his learning. I began to imagine the kinds of problems this little boy was experiencing in school.


One of his goals is increasing his “novel” vocabulary – that is increasing the amount of words he came up with on his own. Remember, the long sentences he says, when he is repeating another person’s words, don’t count. He needed to come up with, and combine words, on his own. This is true language learning. When he first came to see me he was at the one-word level. He was coming up with single words (mostly names). We’d worked on ‘describing words’ like  mama/baby, big/little, and hard/soft, and now he was understanding, and using these words to describe toys and objects. His favorites were the farm animals, and we played with, and talked about the “mama cow”, and “baby cow” and other animals. He was beginning to use novel 2-word phrases.

He came into my office. The farm animals had been moved out because it was time to learn new describing words. We talked about big/little, soft/hard and now I wanted to add colors. I knew he knew his colors from his intake testing. I held up a colored block. “What color is this?”

“Triangle!” he chirped!

“Yes, it’s a triangle.  We’re describing the color….”

“Square!” he shouted about another block he saw on the table.

I brought his attention back to the triangle.  “The color is….”

“Wait!” he shouted. I discovered he used this word with adults when he could not follow the task, or was confused. It’s a very effective word. When he says “wait!” the adult, being polite, will wait. It’s an ideal word for him to manage the activities (and adults) in his life. (And who says kids with autism aren’t smart?)

I paused a moment, then asked again, “The color is…?”

“It’s raining!” he chirped, as he sprung up from his chair to look out the window. It was a perfectly sunny day, without a cloud in the sky. “It’s raining!” was another phase he used to get out of activities.

I tried to bring him back to the blocks. “Today we are describing color. This block is red.”

“Cow!” Georgie shouted. “Cow..cow…cow..” he got up agitated, and paced around the room.

“Do you want to get the farm animals? I asked.

Georgie looked relieved and chirped again, “Cow!”

I took his hand and led him down the hall to another office, where we stopped at the door. I made him knock on the open door and wait. The therapist there greeted Georgie.

“Hello” she said.

“Hi!” chirped Georgie.

“Cow!” He said, and walked across the room to get the bag that held the animals. Then he walked out past the other therapist.

“Bye.”  she said.

“Thank you!” said Georgie not looking back. And then he added “Merry Christmas!” (It was January 15th).


I’ve been teaching Georgie catagories.  When we first started out, this 5-year-old did not know how to name basic catagories like food, and animals. So we played a game where I put a toy in a box and he had to take it out and “put it where it belongs”. We played this game with toys and objects several times, putting the plastic food in the play kitchen, and the toy animals in the toy farmhouse. But every time I introduce a photograph of a toy, food or a vehicle, he protested.

“No!” he screeched….

His reluctance tells me that his brain has not yet developed to a stage where he can understand and manipulate pictures. This usually develops in children around 2 -3 years of age. At age 5 Georgie was far behind. So back we went to the real objects, or objects that closely resemble them. It’s a good game and we keep it up for a while. Georgie is not really ready to move ahead. I’m concerned that Kindergarten is going to be a real shock for him and his teachers.


Watching his mother is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.  Although no one will die in this drama, there will be the death of hope, expectations and the dreams of the child she expected to have. Instead she got a tuned-out, repeating child who cannot answer questions, follow directions, make eye contact or tolerate hugs! “He’s tired today.” “He didn’t eat breakfast.” “He’s not feeling well.” The mother’s excuses keep coming. When will she see, there is no excuse for this unusual behavior? When will she see her child as truly different, and not just slow? What will it take for her to see her son clearly? She came to me for help. She knows her son is not developing. I am waiting for her to show some understanding of who he really is. I am waiting ….


Good developments are happening.  Mother is beginning to realize the kindergarten she is thinking of may not be a good fit for Georgie. She’s going to try her neighborhood public school. This is good because his private preschool was not prepared to offer him any support. I asked them what they do when Georgie didn’t want to participate in classroom activities.  They said they just let him sit in a corner and look at books. I could see him really get left behind in that school. I’m so glad the mom is being proactive about his education. He’s going to need a special touch. Kids with autism always do!

The S Family of Sounds

Sibilants S Z SH ZH CH JAmerican English has 6 sounds that I group together and call “the S Family”.  I  see that my students have trouble differentiating between them, leading to unusual and difficult-to-understand pronunciations.   S Family words are the Sibilant Sounds S , Z,  SH,  ZH, CH and J.   Here I’ve written the sounds with commonly used spellings (orthographic spellings), and not IPA symbols.  The following is a brief explanation of the differences:

S is the “snake sound” the clearest of all the S Family sounds, made by blowing air through the tongue and alveolor ridge.

Z is the “bumblebee sound”, the brother of the S sound, made in the same place with the voice turned on (vibrating).

SH is the “quiet sound” made by blowing air through the tongue and the palate (behind the alveolar ridge).

ZH is the “French sound”, the brother of SH, made in the same place with the voice turned on (the least used sound in the English language at 0.1% frequency of use, and this sound originated in the French language).

CH is the “choo choo train sound” made by blowing air through the tongue and palate. CH has an added movement – it’s like we say T followed quickly by SH.

J is the “jump sound”, the brother of the CH sound, made in the same place with the voice turned on.  J is like D followed quickly by ZH.

Here are some common words with these sounds:

S – sip,   mustard,  pass

Z – zoo,   easy,  please

SH – shop,  motion,  push

ZH – genre, measure, beige

CH – chop,  pitcher,  reach

J – jump,  manager,  edge

Click here for a free worksheet to use when learning new vocabulary words with the S Family of sounds.   Note: error on the first handout.  See the corrected free worksheet here.

Raising Confident Kids

I can do it!Want to see your kids develop confidence? Then less talking and more doing.

Less talking means stop praising them for every little thing they do. Stop constantly telling them how wonderful they are. Your kids will not develop confidence this way. They will, however, develop confidence by trying to do all the things they can do. They will fail sometimes and succeed sometimes. That’s alright. It is with every successful task they accomplish that their confidence will grow. They will look around and say “I can do it!”

You can praise their effort. You know your child best. If they need words of encouragement, then do that. But stand back and let your kids (special needs or otherwise) try all the skills they will need to be independent adults. Their actions and successes will build their confidence!

Read more about Raising Confident Kids.



Normal Sound Development Sequence

sounds of EnglishMy new neighbors hosted us for lunch and while there we got to talking about everybody’s jobs. With 3 out of 4 engineers (the Silicon Valley is full of these) we got onto the topics of technology and business, etc. Eventually we got around to speech therapy. “I have a question for you.” said my neighbor. “My son can’t say his SH sound. I know he’s little (he’s 3) but when should I be concerned about that?”  “Well, at 3, I wouldn’t be too concerned yet.” I replied. “Most kids don’t learn all their sounds until they are 7 or 8.”

I find parents feel much better when they know about the normal development sequence for learning English speech sounds. Here’s a quick overview:

By age 3, kids should have P, M, H, N, W and B

By age 4, kids should have K, G, D, T and NG

By age 6 to 7, kids should have L and R

By age 8, kids should have all other sounds including CH, SH, Z, J, V, TH and ZH

Speech Sound Development Chart

Should I go back and mention that it may be several years before their son gets SH?  Well, not to worry . . . they have a speech language pathologist living next door. I’m sure she’ll be glad to help if they have any more questions.  🙂


Songs and Language Learning

When I was a child, both my parents sang songs to us kids.  My dad sang songs he made up that were often hilarious and unique, not to be repeated a second time.  My mother sang nursery rhymes and Sunday School songs over and over again. Many I still remember to this day.

One of my favorite children’s songs is “Say, Say, Oh Playmate.” My parents live in an old house in New England, thought to be built around the 1850’s. It has many unique features including a cellar and a ‘cellar door’. You rarely see those living on the west coast, but cellars, also called basements, are found in many old houses. The cellar door is usually built over the steps leading down to the cellar, and it is slanted, resembling a kind of slide. Small children often try sliding down the cellar door! And in this song the verse goes “Look down my rain-barrel, slide down my cellar door.”

Years after my mother sang the “Say, Say, Oh Playmate” song to me, I still remember the song, because learning language through songs is a powerful tool. Music engages the parts of the brain where memorization happens. This is why we remember many songs, but not many lists of random facts. Songs help us to learn the melody and intonation of the English language too. Singing uses intonation (rising and falling pitch) and stress (louder, longer and higher pitch) to show the important, or content, words. Are you learning by singing? You should be. I recommend getting CDs with nursery rhymes and other children’s songs. You can usually find them for free at your public library. Learning language with songs is good for children as well as adults who are learning English as a second language.

Here are the lyrics to Say Say Oh Playmate:

Say, say oh playmate

Come out and play with me

And bring your dollies three

Climb up my apple tree

Look down my rain-barrel

Slide down my cellar door

And we’ll be jolly friends forever more!