Learning Differences: 3 Profiles of a Story Stage Student

When Leigh and I started Story Stage, we had trouble finding the right words to describe the kind of kids we wanted to serve. As a speech-language pathologist, I had spent over 20 years seeing all kinds of students with all kinds of needs in public and private school settings, HeadStart programs, Early Childhood Intervention programs, and hospitals. All of the students I saw somehow “qualified” for services (through this or that standardized testing battery), and had come out of the process with a “diagnosis” that gave me permission to see them. That’s exactly what Leigh and I did NOT want to do at Story Stage. We had seen enough to know that the kids with formal diagnoses were not the only ones who needed a little extra help. What about the kids who scored pretty low on the tests, and were really struggling in the classroom or socially; but didn’t score quite low enough? Or the super shy or anxious kids who could use some social skills strategies? Or the kids who were just a little bit quirky (and are probably going to be rocket scientists one day), but couldn’t figure out how to make small talk?

Not that there’s anything wrong with a diagnosis. Our own kids have them! Diagnoses have their place, and we often need them to guide us in finding the right professionals, or to convince the College Board that our children need extra time on the SAT. But we do not need them to define the wonderful human beings who are our children. Neither my child nor your child is a diagnosis, and it makes my heart smile to think of how much more our children are than that! Leigh and I wanted to build a program committed to seeing the whole child, diagnosis or not.

So we decided that Story Stage would serve all students who learn differently. For us that simply means that our students need a different approach or a heightened focus on social skills and/or language skills to help them succeed in the classroom and with friends. Many of our students do come to us with a formal diagnosis. You’ve likely heard of most of them: ADHD, Auditory Processing Disorder, Language Disorder, Specific Learning Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder to name a few. But we are also thrilled to be able to broaden our reach, and try to “catch” some of the children who tend to fall through the cracks for one reason or another.

We are able to cast a wider net because Story Stage is not formal speech-language therapy or academic language therapy. Yes, those are our professional fields, but we will never tell you that Story Stage can replace your one-on-one therapy time if your child needs it. In fact, Leigh and I feel like one of our biggest roles at Story Stage is to help guide parents to the resources they need to help their child. All the professionals and terminology out there can be confusing and overwhelming, especially if you are new to the world of kids who learn differently. In this blog post, we hope to begin to clear up a few things.

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We thought it might be helpful to profile some of the inquiries we get, and give you an insider’s view into how we would respond. Note: These profiles and names are fictional and represent a compilation of many different students. However, they reflect the “typical” type of call we often receive.

Alexa, age 12, private school student:

Alexa has no problems reading or writing in school. In fact, she’s a great student. Alexa doesn’t have any type of formal diagnosis, and has never received any type of therapy or tutoring. Her teachers describe her as very bright, if a bit quirky. However, Alexa has trouble connecting with friends. She’s not good at small talk, and struggles to pick up on social cues, like body language and tone of voice. Alexa finds it confusing that her friends aren’t interested in hearing her talk more about her love of reptiles, but her friends get frustrated that Alexa makes “random” comments when they are trying to have a conversation. Sometimes when her friends respond sarcastically, Alexa takes their comments literally. She gets her feelings hurt and gets angry inappropriately because of these social “disconnects.”

Here's what we told Alexa's parents:

Alexa’s story made us think she might be at risk for a social communication disorder. While we would love to have her in a Story Stage class, we recommended that Alexa’s parents also seek a evaluation with a Speech-Language Pathologist trained to work on social communication. The American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA) defines social communication as the “rules for how we use language in different situations and with different people.” Story Stage is a great place to practice role playing things like small talk and understanding sarcasm. When we improv theater scenes in class, Alexa would get fantastic practice in responding with on-topic comments to extend the conversation. However, we wanted to be sure that Alexa didn’t need more focused intervention even though she was obviously a very high functioning student. Our best advice was to get an evaluation first, then schedule a Story Stage class the following semester. www.asha.org/public/speech/development/social-communication/

Spencer, age 9, public school student:

Spencer is a math whiz, and has the social schedule of a celebrity. Everyone wants to be around Spencer. He is good at making others laugh, and can also laugh at himself. Spencer’s parents recently went to his teacher conferences, and were told that Spencer is struggling with the writing assignments in third grade. Spencer’s teachers say that he has trouble organizing his thoughts into grammatically correct sentences, as well as putting sentences together logically to write a story. Spencer’s parents commented that when Spencer tells stories of his day at home, they don’t always make sense and are difficult to follow. They weren’t sure what to make of it, and they usually just helped him along as it didn’t seem to bother Spencer. Spencer goes to speech-language therapy once a week with a small group at his elementary school.

Here’s what we told Spencer’s parents:

Spencer is a great candidate for a Story Stage Class. Each child in our classes builds their own narrative story in the form of a play. Spencer would get lots of practice in story organization, while getting real-time feedback on whether or not his story makes sense as he and his peers act out scenes. Because oral language is the foundation for written language, Story Stage Class could really boost Spencer’s narrative writing skills. However, we also recommended that Spencer’s parents work closely with the SLP in Spencer’s school. We recommended they ask: 1) When is Spencer due for a re-evaluation?; 2) Do Spencer’s goals for therapy include narrative language goals and/or sentence building goals?; 3) Would it be possible for Spencer to go to therapy twice a week instead of just once?

Geneva, age 16, homeschool student:

Geneva is a quiet, thoughtful teenage girl. She attended a public elementary school until 6th grade, but then transitioned to homeschool. Geneva has a formal diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, and has been in therapy to work on social skills for many years. Her mom reports that Geneva does well in school when the material is straightforward and fact-based. However, as the curriculum has gotten more complex, Geneva struggles with questions that require her to make predictions about what might happen, draw inferences, and come up with solutions to problems. She has good ideas, but it often takes her a little longer to get them across. Geneva’s mom is hoping that a Story Stage Class might give Geneva a place to practice her conversational skills and problem solving skills in a safe, supportive group.

Here’s what we told Geneva’s parents:

We felt like Story Stage was a great fit for Geneva. Because she was already receiving speech therapy and had been recently evaluated by a neuropsychologist, we felt this was a good time for Geneva to try out her skills in a supportive group setting. Working through story-building with a group of peers requires a lot of problem solving! We were excited to get Geneva in class and help guide her to predict what might happen next in the plays we would create. We also thought that improvising dialogue would be great practice for Geneva’s conversational skills and also for her inferencing skills. (What might you say in a scene to let the audience know you are a marine biologist?)

All three of these students had great semesters at Story Stage! Alexa’s parents got her in to see a speech pathologist, but therapy was not recommended at the time. (However, we all felt better having ruled out something that might have required one-on-one intervention). Sometimes it helps to have someone who’s “been there” give you a few tips along the way. We love writing plays with your children, and we also love helping you along on this journey. What we love best though is that Story Stage is a place for the whole child, diagnosis or not.