Taking questions: Fast food rewards in speech therapy?

Source: bing.com via Abbey on Pinterest


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?

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7 thoughts on “Taking questions: Fast food rewards in speech therapy?

  1. Although I understand why it’s wrong, and my conscious mind is going “WRONG! WRONG!”, I kinda can see how it’s a cute way to get the matching words visible in the containers. It really *is* cute. But wrong. Very wrong.

  2. The SLP who was at my site before I was there gave the kids a gummy worm after every session. I quickly stopped that (like, I never did!) First, I have a caseload pushing 100 (no cap in our state) and I can’t afford 200 gummy worms a week!

    But second, like you I am opposed to food rewards. I don’t even give stickers (unless it is necesary for a particular student, like you describe) and I have no prize box. Surprisingly, the kids will do well in speech without the rewards. At first, they asked for candy like the other person gave them. But I told them (and this is the truth) that I can’t give them candy, because I will eat it all. As I sit in my office writing IEPs, I will take “just one more” piece until it is all gone. I just can’t even keep it in my office.

    I have done food a few times. Sometimes we make cooking an activity, and they are always the students’ favorite activities. I’ve made chocolate cake in a mug, microwave apple crisp, popcorn, and toast with jam with the students. Great activities, and they talk about it for weeks. When we opened our school garden, I did a week where I spent (a lot) of money and bought all of the fruits and vegetables I could find at the grocery store that we might grow. Then, during therapy we touched them all, describing what they all looked like and felt like. I had more that we cut up to taste everything, describing the taste and texture, too. Then each student chose their favorite, and we ranked them on a chart. Again, an activity that truly went on for weeks–the next session we sequenced what we had done, and recalled favorite foods. And for weeks after they could tell me their favorite.

  3. Oh, I am not a fan of the food reward at all. You’d be glad to know that my child’s speech therapist was a “reward them with a book” kind of girl, and that worked for us. Too bad that she kept calling my child by another name for years . . .

    My beef (I don’t eat beef BTW) with my child’s school is that rewards are generally food based. As the new president of the PTA, I’m hoping to ditch the pizza here, pizza there mentality of rewards. Cheap, greasy pizza makes my child ill, but that’s not where I’m going with this. Give them something that they can use like a book or pencil. Give them an extra recess. Stop filling these children with crap junk just to reward them.

    Sadly, we live in a rather indigent school district and I think that the mindset might be, “Pack ’em full of food before the weekend.”

  4. I can’t stand junk food rewards in education and schools, and it is everywhere:schools, reading programs etc. My library has its summer reading program, which I am not a big fan of, and my kids love the library and reading so they don’t need a reward to go and read there, but they wanted to do the summer reading program because they get to choose from the treasure box of: plastic toys and stickers along with cookies and McDonalds coupons. I never showed them the coupons and passed them on to someone else. My kids (ages 4 and 6) have never been to a McDonalds to eat because once they know about that place (I know they will someday), I will never hear the end of it: the whining for a meal with a plastic toy will start! And more importantly I want to feed their bodies real food as much as I can.

  5. In pre-school, my now eight year old had a sophisticated palate. One of the assignments was a “favorites” tree. The families attending this school like to think of themselves as worldly and well-to-do but there were a lot of kids with favorite restaurant as McDonalds. The teacher said she couldn’t understand my son so we needed to get him tested. She couldn’t understand the restaurant “Tukta Thai” which was less than a quarter mile away on the same street. No surprise, after a year after leaving the school, we found out she also would grab his chin to get attention.

    A Montessori school was much better. Competent, kind teachers, a no junk food policy and diverse student backgrounds. My son was able to try various homemade ethnic foods from several African countries, Asia and Europe.

    Start them right and they will love exploring food as part of the world rather than what’s on the corner.

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