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Dismissal Decisions and Student Motivation: When is dismissal the answer?

Dismissal Decisions and Student Motivation: When is dismissal the answer?
Marva Mount, MA, CCC-SLP
January 24, 2019


In this course, we are going to be talking about dismissal decisions and student motivation. When is dismissal the answer? This is one of the most perplexing pieces that we do as speech-language pathologists because we want to help our students get the maximum benefit from their educational settings, as well as their daily activities with friends, peers and other members of the community.  Considering dismissal is a difficult thing for SLPs to determine.  Hopefully, this course will provide you with some ideas that you haven’t thought about in terms of motivating students and what to do when there is no motivating factor.   What are we going to do about it and how are we going to convince the student and their parents that dismissal is the best option?

The course agenda includes discussing how to motivate the unmotivated, looking at what factors should be reviewed when considering dismissal from services, and how do we successfully discuss dismissal with families and students when we are no longer producing positive outcomes and are basically “wasting time” out of the education setting, which we never want to do.  

How Do We Motivate?

It's usually pretty easy to motivate younger students because we are where the fun happens, we are that “fun” person.  But how do we motivate older students, primarily our middle school and high school students, who have probably been in therapy for a long time?  They've been coming for a number of years, maybe they haven't seen any benefit from therapy, or maybe they just don't understand why they're coming to therapy in the first place.

Let's look at some ways to motivate older students: 

  • Ownership - Does the student take ownership of their therapy, what they're supposed to be doing in that therapy setting and what the benefits for them will be?
  • Goal setting - What are some incentives? Even as adults need incentives.  As a school-based SLP, getting the occasional holiday is a big incentive for me.  Having summers off to be with family and a variety of other things are incentives that help all of us to get up and go to work every day. 
  • Strengths - We need to know our students and what they know how to do. This can help with motivating them and finding exactly what they need to get them to come to therapy and to participate in therapy. 


We need to give teens and tweens a sense of control. Teenagers often are looking for something they can control because they can't control very many things. They can't control their hormones, their chores, their homework, what their parents require them, or what their teachers require of them. If we can figure out how to give some of our students more sense of control, then we might get them to come to therapy and be motivated to participate with us.

We want to harness student interests and give them responsibility for their own program. Encouraging self-reflection is a really important skill that students need to learn early on.  Additionally, we need to offer students varied experiences - things that they're interested in doing as well as things that they have to do but may not be interested in doing.

Goal Setting

For students in middle school and high school, goals should be set pretty high but they need to be attainable.  We need to be sure to define the objectives for our students.  Explain to them why we're working on certain skills and what the short-term and long-term benefit of those goals and objectives will be. What are they going to get from those goals in the years to come and when they're adults? 

Ask students what's important to them. Obviously, for IEP purposes, we have to set goals and objectives based on the state’s standards, as well as to meet the IDEA requirements of the federal government. On paper, I understand what those need to look like, but even with elementary age students, I start involving them and explaining to them what their areas of weakness are and why those areas are challenging for them.  Then, I involve them in short-term objectives - maybe even more distinct short-term objectives than what are on the IEP - so that there are intervals to look at progress and we can mark things off as we go. I'm a very visual speech pathologist, so I always like to have graphs for my students. I want them to be able to see how far they've come rather than wait for some type of annual performance review.  Even as adults, we don't want to wait for long periods of time before knowing how we are doing in our job.  

On the IEP document, there is a long-term goal and several objectives or benchmarks that go along with those objectives.  But I like to break it down even more into manageable chunks.  Then, I can review each one of those variables with the student and chart their progress on a regular basis (i.e., every two weeks, every four weeks, each grading period, etc.). I want to make it very visual for them when defining objectives and setting attainable levels.  

I always want students to be involved in developing their goals and objectives. I give them the global area of challenge that they might have and then we discuss what they might find important. It is surprising how many middle school and high school students have an opinion about that.  With these age groups, it is very important that they decide what is most important to them and what they feel they need to get out of intervention.  That seems to be the most critical motivator to older students.  I want them to tell me what's important to them.  It has to be pertinent to them, and they have to understand what the benefit is going to be for them if you're going to get them to do what you want them to do. 


Create threat-free environments.  There is so much going on with bullying, particularly with social media, for students who struggle in school or for those who may appear different from their peers.  Unfortunately, they are easy targets for their peers to make fun of or to threaten in some way. I don't mean physically threaten, but threaten their well-being or peace of mind.  We have to make sure our therapy sessions are threat-free environments and that students feel comfortable coming to us because they know it is a place of acceptance and understanding.

Offer rewards. Sometimes the reward is just having a conversation with a peer. For some of my male high school students the reward is asking a girl on a date.  Those are the rewards, not necessarily external rewards such as stickers and parties. Rewards can also be visual graphs of progress – seeing how much closer they are to dismissal from therapy.  Those types of things can be very rewarding to students. Therefore, it is important to have conversations with them regarding their favorite things.  Ask questions like, “What's most important to you in life?” “What's the worst thing about school for you?” “How can we make that better?”  Sometimes that's the reward.

Give praise when it's earned. I emphasize “when it’s earned” because many of us are so caring and kind.  We think that we are encouraging them by saying, "Oh, good job," or "That was almost right," or, "Oh, that was a good try."  However, sometimes that praise isn't really earned, and students pick up on that and think that maybe we aren’t being sincere.  That’s certainly not the intent, but it can come across that way to our students.  When giving praise make sure the student earns it.  That is particularly important for older students. 

When working with middle school and high school students, I tell them when they are wrong.  I don’t say, “Well that was a really great try," because that doesn’t tell them what they did wrong, or what they did right, or what was good about it or not.  I love to give praise but I only give it when they earn it. And usually, my praise is also made into a teachable moment for older students.

Give distinct feedback and offer chances for improvement. I might say, “You know, you really weren't on your game today. But that's okay.” Also, give personal examples. Tell them about things that you haven't been good at recently or ways that you have failed at something so that they understand everybody has problems and no one's perfect.  That kind of feedback is very important as they grow and mature, particularly in those moments when they can feel like everything they do is wrong. So, find ways to give distinct feedback, offer them chances to improve and help them understand that if today wasn’t so great, we chart that so that next time if they do better they will see an increase in their improvement. 

The “3 Ms”.  I learned about the 3 M’s at a workshop and thought it was very powerful.  The 3 M’s are motivation, meaningful, and memorable. Meaning, make all activities motivating, meaningful, and memorable. Think about what makes things memorable for you. Think about things that motivate you. Is it success that motivates you, is it that you have one less day to come to speech therapy, is it that you have one less activity under this goal and objective? It has to be meaningful. If it's not meaningful and motivating, then you're not going to remember it, you're not going to incorporate it, you're not going to do it on a daily basis. So, the three Ms are a very powerful moment in planning my therapy and making sure that students' attitudes are factored into everything that we do in therapy.

Make it FUN. We are the “fun” person. We're typically the one who comes up with all the cool activities. We're the ones that take a break from the mundane and turn everything into an event or an amazing activity. As SLPs, that's what we do for a living. That's what makes us come back every day to our jobs. It’s not our paperwork, it's not our deadlines, it's not the amazing amount of money that we get every year for a job well done. It's all the great things that we get to do in therapy that show progress in our students. That’s what keeps us coming back. And thank goodness for that, right? 


In terms of playing off of students' strengths, a little competition is always good. I like to set up activities where students compete on teams or compete against themselves. I may say to them, “Today your score was X, I want you to shoot for higher than that next time.” 

Personal competition is a big part of therapy with my older students. For students with autism and those who are on the spectrum, personal competition can be challenging because oftentimes they don't like to be wrong, they don't like to lose a game, and they don't like to be at the bottom.  For a long time, I stayed away from competitive situations in therapy because I didn't want these students to become upset, or I didn't want to deal with the behaviors that competitive activities could bring on.  But over time, I realized that this is what life is all about.  So many things are a competition, and students need to learn how to deal with situations where they are not first or the best or the smartest.  They need to learn how to deal with those moments when they're not on the top, when they're not the best, or when they're not the smartest because that's life. That’s what happens every day on the job or in relationships with other people. This can be a great teachable moment in terms of social stories for how to deal with not winning a game, not being first or not getting the highest score.  Definitely try to involve some type of competition, maybe not just games, but even personal competition where they are competing with themselves. 

Set up success based on strengths of the student. For example, if the student is really good at fact-finding and they enjoy investigating different subjects then factor that into that student’s activity.  That is a great way for them to show their strengths in a particular activity. Similarly, some students are extremely anxious (e.g., children with selective mutism, students with autism or Asperger's) and will need help managing their anxiety because that is a life skill.  Setting up success based on strengths can be very beneficial to all students, especially those who have greater anxiety.  Students with fluency disorders can also benefit from basing therapy on their strengths.  

Track progress in a way that is understandable and visual.  As I mentioned previously, I like to visually track students.  Most of the students that I see have a graph, a feelings chart or something they can always see at the end of therapy. We spend the last five minutes of therapy reviewing their progress in their folders.  Not everyone's progress chart will look the same because everyone is motivated differently.  For example, some students like to color their graph each day so that they can see, “Today I am at 60%.  On Thursday I am 70%.”  At the end of the grading period, that graph is a great way to track progress visually. It also makes it easier to do my progress monitoring.  There are many examples of visual tracking and monitoring charts on Teacher Pay Teachers and Pinterest. 

Questions to Ask Yourself

When thinking about motivational factors for our students, there are some questions we can ask ourselves. First, what is the relationship like with our students? It's very natural to have certain students that we are drawn to and we may worry about how they are doing when they are not with us.  There are also students that we may not enjoy working with because of their behavior, attitude or demeanor (e.g., I don't care about anything. This doesn't make any sense to me.  I'm kind of ambivalent to you and what you're trying to do for me).  It's harder to like those students.  In those instances, pick a student that you don't have a very good relationship with and analyze the situation. Why don’t you have a good relationship with that student? What might have caused that relationship? Sometimes it's simply that they have had years and years of therapy.  Maybe they have never had anyone explain to them why they need to go to therapy. They've never seen a chart of their progress. They've never attended an IEP meeting with their family to learn what everybody thinks about their progress. Perhaps, they've never really been included in the decision-making about their speech therapy.  Analyze those types of situations and make a list of factors that may be contributing to the student’s negative response to therapy.  

marva mount

Marva Mount, MA, CCC-SLP

Marva Mount, M. A., CCC-SLP has worked in a variety of settings in her 35+ year career, with school-based services being her most enjoyed work setting due to serving children who have the greatest need for services and the highest likelihood of educational success with intervention. Marva has presented at the state and national level on a variety of school-based issues.  Marva is a chapter author/contributor to the Fifth Edition of Professional Issues in Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology as well as a contributing author to ASHA Special Interest Group 11 and 16 (Supervision and School-based Issues) Perspectives.  At the 2018 Texas Speech and Hearing Convention, Marva was awarded the TSHA Hall of Fame Award for outstanding contributions to the profession.  Marva is currently serving as the topic chair for Professional Issues and Leadership for the 2020 ASHA convention in San Diego.


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