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Q: I recently read a blog from a new SLP (speech-language pathologist) describing an activity using McDonald’s french fry containers and craft sticks to complete language tasks. I find it so disappointing that early childhood educators choose to provide free advertisement for these disgusting food science establishments. A comment that followed the blog indicated that another SLP used free meal certificates from a different fast food restaurant as a reward for completing speech homework! I was outraged and so disappointed to read this! As an SLP, I know there are MANY other means to accomplish goals that are motivating and exciting for young children that do not involve food, particularly that type of food. As a parent, I would be furious if my child’s teacher or SLP was encouraging this type of unhealthy food choices.
A: Honestly, I had seen that in passing online somewhere. I found two other speech paths who used a similar activity with McDonald’s fry containers. Click over here and here for other examples. While I’m dismayed that McDonald’s is getting promoted by a school staff member, I think that the activity shows how creative many speech-language pathologists can be with their therapy materials. It’s hard to get and keep kids’ attention during sometimes monotonous tasks requiring speech drill. And unfortunately kids recognize and get excited about the McDonald’s brand.
Personally, I cannot imagine using anything from McDonald’s in therapy, but kids do talk about going out to eat and you’d be surprised how often McDonald’s comes up in conversation. I’m careful not to judge and state neutral observations. Speech pathologists do use food in therapy — it’s when food is a reward that things get complex. I admit to using food rewards when I first started out. I had one of those massive boxes of goldfish crackers and I would use them as food rewards in sessions with my students with autism. Bite-size foods are great for discrete trials (do this, get that). I shared a room with a paraprofessional who gave out lollipops after many sessions. Even before the school lunch project, I was not a fan of that practice. Daily candy is not a strong reinforcer. I’ve also abandoned goldfish and all food rewards. Now for discrete trials or speech drill that requires immediate rewarding (not that many activities do), I like little foil stickers, which the kids can stick on a piece of construction paper. Then they can take the paper with them.
I’m assuming that speech pathologists and teachers who use McDonald’s products or gift certificates to reward students believe it’s an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” kinda thing. Unfortunately, we have to view ourselves as role models — that’s how the kids see us — and avoid endorsing specific brands or a general type of food, like candy.
Speech pathologists who work with clients learning how to navigate their communities do enter fast food establishments. Individuals with cognitive impairment need to learn life skills including ordering at a restaurant (I blogged about life skills in the past). One of my friends from graduate school worked with people with moderate cognitive impairments and spent most of her day in the community with her clients. Being an SLP means helping clients communicate functionally throughout the day, including places they frequent. I think there is a time and a place for discussing making healthy choices.
Another type of client that requires community-based intervention are people who stutter. Sometimes they want to learn how to control their stuttering when they order from a menu — where better to practice than an actual restaurant? Many people who stutter avoid entering fast food restaurants due to fear and avoidance of stuttering. Some therapy plans include desensitization. Effective therapy should take place wherever the client needs the practice and natural settings are preferred.
I went off on a speech tangent there (yes, I geek out sometimes), but I think a substitute activity for the McDonald’s fry game is pulling words out of a bag or putting words into a box or envelope. Many students feel rewarded with they can physically see they are done with something (no more sticks!).
Thoughts on food rewards?