6 Strategies for Keeping Children Engaged During Virtual Speech and Language Sessions

In 2020, our world was turned upside-down. Many speech-language pathologists (SLPs) felt thrust into a virtual world of service delivery they had never set foot in before. Challenging as it was, we remained committed to the children we serve and adapted to our new reality.

While some SLPs have returned to in-person service, many of us in private practice continue to operate under a hybrid, or virtual-only model. This can be challenging, as keeping children engaged online is no small feat. However, we have learned a lot since this new learning model began, and from that knowledge, we can discern what has worked best.

Here, we’ll explore six applicable strategies to promote engagement during virtual sessions among preschoolers and young elementary students:

1. Connect

Begin your session by using the first few minutes to chat with the child in front of you. Few children are ready and willing to start working the minute the video call connects. Greet them with enthusiasm and tell them how happy you are to see them. Ask about their day, week, or weekend, and show interest in their personal life. Fostering a positive clinical relationship starts with connection, whether in-person or on-screen.

2. Provide a Sense of Control

When you think about it, children have very little autonomy. Much of their daily activities are determined by an adult, whether that adult is a parent, caregiver, or teacher. Consider the impact it could have on a child’s mentality if once a week they got to call the shots for a little bit. Now that would be something worth looking forward to! Here are some simple ways you can offer them a sense of control:

  • Provide the child with 2-3 game or activity choices and allow them to decide which one they would like to play.
  • Let the child choose the order of activities that will take place during the session.
  • Give the child mouse control through your online platform when possible and allow them to navigate the screen themselves.
  • Switch roles and let the child be the speech therapist for a few minutes. This strategy is also helpful for the SLP, as it demonstrates if the child has grasped the concept. If the child can explain and demonstrate what you have taught, they are well on their way to success!
  • Let the child decide who gets the first turn in a game and how many turns they get (within reason).

3. Use Competition to Your Advantage

Competition is a fantastic way to promote engagement. There are two types of competition:

  • Competition against an adult (SLP or parent): This includes playing a game against the adult, such as Snakes & Ladders, Connect Four, or Memory. The desire to win is a critical component of a child’s motivation to participate!
  • Competition against themselves: This includes the child saying their target sound/word more times than during the previous session or beating their previous percentage of accuracy. An added benefit of this approach is that it also helps the SLP get more trials during a session!

4. Offer Engaging Materials

Boring, repetitive activities will not keep a child engaged and willing to work with you for 30 minutes or more. By providing exciting, fresh therapy materials to the child during each session, you can foster engagement and extend the child’s ability to stay focused on the task at hand. Here are some ideas for incorporating engaging materials:

  • Integrate activities that hold an element of surprise, such as pulling objects out of a bag or a box, online hide-and-seek games, or lift-the-flap books. Build up the anticipation!
  • Play games and activities that have colorful, visually pleasing features.
  • Include objects, toys, games, or pets that are personally meaningful to the child in your sessions. Such elements can often be found in the child’s home. Children love to show and talk about their favorite things!
  • Be silly! You are the most engaging “material” the child can work with. Don’t be afraid to let your inner child shine! This approach will surely lead to many laughs, as well as increased child involvement.

5. Employ Assistance from Caregivers

Engaging your caregiver as an ally in virtual learning can be highly beneficial. It may not always be possible, depending on your work setting, but it can be helpful to have someone with the child on the other side of the screen to physically engage with them. This approach can help keep the child on track and sustain the desired pace of learning.

6. Shorter Sessions

When a child knows their session with you will be long, it can feel overwhelming to them. For a child, one hour can feel like a lifetime. Just the idea of sitting still in front of a screen can make it difficult for them to stay on task and remain motivated. This is particularly true if the tasks are difficult for them. It may be easier to mentally prepare themselves for shorter 30-minute sessions.

While virtual sessions with children can seem daunting, there are many ways to make them successful. Implementing the above strategies will allow you to increase engagement and session success. Remember that a child who is engaged is a child who is ready to learn and make progress!

To help ready you for putting these concepts into practice, MedBridge instructor Melissa Jakubowitz offers a three-part course that focuses on providing therapy via telepractice to pediatric populations. You’ll discover engaging materials for telepractice, strategies for working with different pediatric clients, and learning models uniquely effective in delivering telepractice service to children.