The #1 Way to Sell your Colleagues on Metalinguistic Strategies

metalinguistic strategies for language therapy; the slps role in the schools

Power of Meta Volume 3: The #1 Way to Sell your Colleagues on Metalinguistic Strategies

If someone asked you what you doing for a living, you’d probably say “speech pathologist”, “speech therapist”, “speech teacher”, or something of the like.

But did you know you are also a salesperson?

salesmanAs Dan Pink put it in his book, To Sell is Human, many of us are in sales, and we don’t even know it. As therapists, we fall in to this group.

Let me show you what I mean. Have you ever thought to yourself:

“Why won’t my coworkers just listen to what I have to say/do what I ask?”

“What can I do to get this student to do their homework/use their strategies/come to speech on time (et cetera)?”

“This would be so much easier if I could just convince this teacher/teaching assistant/parent to help their child with (insert desired behavior here)!

You’re not only “selling” your students on doing what you ask in therapy. You’ve also got to convince your colleagues to reinforce the skills in other settings.

This is especially true when you’re teaching students with language disorders to use metalinguistic strategies. Because you know that no matter how many times you practice completing a graphic organizer, using reading comprehension strategies, or using complex sentence structures and vocabulary within the structured therapy session; your students may struggle if no one supports them in generalizing these skills to other situations.

In other words, you need to “sell” your colleagues on metalinguistic strategies. But we are in luck, because our unique training in communication sets us up to master the essential components of persuasion.

Attunement: What is it and why do you need it?

Therapists and educators are in the business of behavioral change. We want our clients/students/patients to change their thinking and the way they perform so they can succeed in school and life.

According to Dan Pink, one of the ways we do this is through attunement.

Attunement defined as the ability to become “one” with another being. This is the core of what we do as speech pathologists, because we can’t achieve it without effective communication.

In order to attune with others, we need to appropriately initiate an interaction with another person, be aware of their behaviors and responses to our behaviors, and adjust what we do accordingly. We need to cue in to subtle nonverbal responses, and read between the lines when the other person doesn’t come out and say what they mean. We need to be aware of when they don’t understand us, so we can successfully make repairs. Most of all we need to LISTEN, and show the other person that we understand their position.

Are we failing to communicate?

During my interactions with teachers, I’ve thought that related service personnel (e.g., speech pathologists, psychologists, social workers) may not be fully attuning with our colleagues. I sit on a student problem solving team responsible for advising teachers when they refer students for academic and behavioral concerns. When we did a survey to assess the teachers’ perceptions of the team’s effectiveness, my suspicions were confirmed.

Here are some things the teachers’ said:

“Please treat us with respect when you make recommendations for us. We’ve tried a lot of things before coming to the team and we’re experienced teacher.”

 “I’d rather just take care of it myself in my classroom instead of come to the team and have you all tell me to do a list of things I’ve already tried or that will be unworkable.”

“I don’t feel like the team members really understand what we’re going through. Someone from the team should come and watch what the students are doing so they can see for themselves.”

They said it loud and clear: We don’t get it. They don’t feel heard.

If we want them to sell them on something and make them understand, we need to pay it forward and do it first. This is where we need to scrap the traditional view of “selling” as sleazy and manipulative, and replace it with the idea that we can move others by connecting with and understanding them.

Stop and ask yourself if you really do understand the teacher’s perspective. Do you really know what it’s like to be in their classroom all day?

Teachers are under enormous pressure, and they don’t want to hear one more thing they need to do. Due to the nature of metalinguistic skills, it’s essential that students have support generalizing their strategies across settings. We know that this is quite attainable and just want teachers to hear us out, but they won’t be receptive unless we meet them in the middle.

So lets talk about how we can do that.

1. Change your explanatory style.

face-think-about-it-1554892Explanatory style is our way of making sense of what happens around us, including the behaviors of others. The problem is, our perceptions aren’t always accurate, and they can actually limit us and our ability to connect with others.

For example, let’s say you approach a teacher about using a visual checklist in his/her room to cue a student to self-question while reading, only to get shut down. Would you come away from that situation assuming that the teacher is inflexible, doesn’t respect your opinion, and doesn’t care about the student?

Let’s think of another way to explain the teachers’ behaviors. Maybe the teacher is exhausted, overworked, and frustrated because they’ve already tried to help the student. Maybe another teacher challenged them and they’re already feeling defensive. Maybe they want to help, but they’re worried they’ll fail. Any could be true, and giving them the benefit of the doubt will put you in a more perceptive state so you’ll be a better listener.

2. Observe.

teaching-high-school-africa-1493847 This, I would argue, is one of the most important things you can do. We need to be in tune with the behaviors and the problems that others are having so that can understand them. Stephen Covey put it best when he said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

A great way to do this is to visit the classroom. For me this has included language arts, math, or specific content areas such as the social sciences. Part of what I’m doing is watching how my student is responding, and noting thoughts I have about how the teacher can make small tweaks in their instruction.

Most importantly, before I think about what they can learn from me, I think about what I can learn from them. So I look around the room and make a laundry list of all of the good things the teacher is already doing to enhance metacognition.  This includes visual aids to help students, or any type of teaching method that I see the teacher doing that involves some type of metacognitive/metalinguistic strategy.

Here are some fantastic things that I’ve seen when observing classrooms:

  • Step-by-step processes for solving mathematical equations (e.g., such as the mnemonic Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, or Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction)
  • Lists of comprehension or self-talk strategies that students can use when reading (“I’m asking questions about what I’m reading”, “I’m making pictures in my mind about what I’m reading.” “I’m thinking about what I already know as I learn new things.”)
  • Lists of words with multiple meanings, and examples of ways they can be used in different contexts.
  • Lists of vivid verbs or robust nouns.
  • Daily schedule with homework and needed materials next to it (both individualized for students and for the whole class)
  • Teachers talk students through finding the main idea of paragraphs
  • Talking students through important supporting details
  • Teachers modelling self-questioning techniques for writing (“Does this make tense?” “Does this follow a clear topic?” “What else does my reader want to know?”)

They may not use the term “metacognitive” or “metalinguistic” when they are planning their instruction, but they are utilizing these strategies because they are good teachers!

Approaching teachers about coming in to their classrooms can get tricky. You’re entering their territory, and you don’t want the teacher thinking that you’re coming in to “evaluate” them. What’s worked well for me is that I say something like, “Katie is really struggling with (list skill or skills here). I know you’re really good at teaching (list something here) and I’d really like to come observe your class to better understand what you’re teaching/what I could be working on in therapy/what’s working well for you.

This way, you’re asking for help rather than “educating” them, and you’re doing so in a way that doesn’t create additional work for the teacher. And most of all, you’re acknowledging their expertise and the fact that you want to learn from them. Asking for someone’s help is one of the sincerest forms of flattery.

Observations don’t only have to be in class, as you can also watch how the teacher contributes to discussions, be aware of information they share when consulting, or acknowledge what they communicate during written interactions. The important thing is to make sure you know the strengths and frustrations before you ask them to change anything.

3. Give, give, give, give, give…then ask.

Startup Stock PhotosThis sounds like a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be. A series of small “gives” can make a profound difference, and all it takes is a little more awareness on your part. This could include any small favor, complement, or action you take to support that teacher.

One easy way to “give” is to praise and acknowledge the teacher (either individually or in front of others if appropriate). You could say, “Mr. Smith, I noticed how you were talking students through ways to find meanings for different words in their texts. That really seemed to help them understand.”

Listening to the teacher vent, and even participating along with them can also be effective. I don’t mean that you should spend hours and hours complaining about what a pain it is to work with a certain student, but sharing in the frustration shows that you’re on the same team. I have a student with poor executive functioning skills that is constantly off-task and several steps behind the rest of the class. Simply saying, “Wow, it really is a lot of work for you to keep him focused!” went a long way.

One favor you can do is to share a copy of your observation notes after a classroom visit. You have to proceed with caution here, but if your notes are complementary it may make their day. People love it when you take the time to notice their hard work-especially when they are using excellent strategies without even realizing it.

Another way to “give” is to try something new in therapy based on your observation learnings and share the outcome with the teacher. This is a way you can show that you were really paying attention, and you may also be able to inform the teacher what worked.

By the time you get to the “ask”, remember to show them all the wonderful things going on in their classrooms. They may not even realize that they are on the right path, and they may appreciate your taking the time to notice. This automatically primes them for the discussion of implementing metalinguistic strategies, because you are meeting them halfway-so you can ease in to the “asking”.

A good place to start with making recommendations for teachers is to pick one thing that they are already doing well, and find a way that they can make a small change in that strategy that is feasible for them.

Do they already talk students through self-questioning strategies when taking notes? Have them continue this, but add an individualized visual aid.

Do they have robust vocabulary words posted around the room? Take it a step further and teach the students about definition format so they can more effectively remember what they words means.

Are they using a graphic organizer for writing? Make a small change to give your students a cue, or see if the teacher is open to using a mnemonic along with it to help your students recall revision techniques.

There is no magic formula for the exact number of gives before the ask. The important thing is that you do it.

4. Start with the low-hanging fruit.

an-apple-a-day-1328005Regardless of how diplomatic you are about approaching teachers, some of them will still be uneasy about letting you come in to their room. While it’s important that you put effort in to achieving attunement with your colleagues, it’s unproductive to swim upstream. Instead, start with teachers who are already receptive.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with a group of teachers who are happy to have me come in anytime. One teacher even told me, “I’m so glad you are doing this! It’s really important that you’re coming to see what it’s really like for us.”

When a number of teachers start to get results, they may start to talk with their friends. The word may get out, and you may actually get people asking you for your help. This is a wonderful thing. Even if they don’t start coming to you, people may realize how helpful you are and may let their guard down. Take it one step at a time, and don’t lose sleep over the laggards.



If you want to start taking this a step further, I talk about how to prioritize the concepts you address in language therapy in this free video training (and I talk about when you might need to stand you ground with what you’re doing in therapy, even if your coworkers ask you to work on something else with your students).

tier 2 vocabulary; school speech therapy; language therapy techniques


2 Responses to “The #1 Way to Sell your Colleagues on Metalinguistic Strategies

  • Great post but I was wanting to know if
    you could write a litte more on this subject? I’d be
    very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit
    further. Cheers!

    • Thank you! I will keep your suggestion in mind for future posts. In the meantime, I highly recommend taking a look at some of Dan Pink’s books. You can get more details about some of the things I discussed in his book To Sell is Human.

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