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Six Ways to Promote Self-Advocacy in School-Aged Children

by Sarah Ott, M.S., CCC-SLP

As a therapist working with children who range from preschool age to young adults, I started to notice a link between how my clients were feeling prior to, during, and after our sessions. I noticed that some of my clients were not ready for therapy, either emotionally, socially, cognitively (ex: attention), or physically (ex: under or overly stimulated). In addition, when I would ask what we were working on today many of my clients couldn’t answer. They would often say “You’re my speech teacher” or “I don’t know.” I started to realize that this made self-advocacy, or asking for help, much less spontaneous or independent. In addition, internal motivation (the kind that research suggests is linked to the greatest levels of sustained progress and resilience) was lacking.

Based on these observations as a clinician, I began to think of ways I could utilize mindfulness, social and emotional competencies, and self-awareness strategies throughout my sessions. My goal was to increase self-advocacy, internal motivation, and engagement and persistence in working on challenging areas. I embed tools to aid with emotional regulation, positive self-talk, attention, accountability, and organizational strategies into sessions for all of my clients, not any one particular diagnosis. Research has found that mindfulness practices increase attention, inhibition, and organization, and decreased stress and impulsivity.

Self-advocacy through Social Thinking©:

In many of my sessions I utilize components of Social Thinking© with clients spanning from preschool aged children to adults in both individual and group settings. Social Thinking© is a teaching framework for individuals aged preschool through adult, created by Michelle Garcia Winner, CCC-SLP. It consists of a Social Thinking Vocabulary that establishes a common language to discuss social functioning, curriculum lessons, and strategies that break down social concepts into concrete, teachable formats. Social Thinking© “explodes the social code” to help children and adults learn to be better social thinkers and communicators. All of these skills help to promote self-advocacy.

Here are six ways I utilize and embed mindfulness, social-emotional competencies, and flexible/positive mindset strategies into sessions. Mind you, these do not need to be goal areas. They are “micro-moments” of re-focusing of mind and body to benefit the individual and session outcomes.

Begin sessions with an emotional check-in & coping strategy tool belt:

Utilizing concepts from the Zones of Regulation I have created a laminated poster with Velcro and laminated photos or drawings of the clients I work with. Upon entering the session, I have the client place their photo in the Zone that represents how they are feeling (ex: blue zone = tired, green zone = ready to learn). We have discussed prior to using our emotional check-ins how our bodies feel and look when we are ready to learn, tired, excited, anxious, etc. If they need to use a strategy from their “tool belt” to be ready to learn, we select one and begin the session with that exercise. This can take 30 seconds to 1 minute. Just a micro-moment. It also shows that you care about how they feel, and helps them to advocate their needs.

Creating an “I can get it myself corner”:

I write down on a whiteboard what will be needed for our session today, and the clients reference this and are responsible for getting their own supplies from the “I Can Get It Myself Corner.” The supplies also include what it is they may want out for their “Brain Break,” which I will reference soon! Sometimes I will set it up so items are missing from the corner, and they need to initiate asking me for more supplies, or asking wh-questions, such as where they may be. Encourage self-advocacy and growth at the same time!

Client goal sheets and selection:

At the beginning of the session we go over what goals the client is working on today, and for older clients what goals they would like to work on first, second, etc. throughout the session. I will sometimes have a scale of 1-10 on how hard or easy they view this goal area to be for them, and I am open to tracking what we are working on. For example, if we are targeting inferencing in stories I discuss things like how they used smart vs. wacky guesses, how highlighting while reading helped guide them to more correct responses, or what progress we made using certain strategies. It’s important to focus on how THEY learn best, because everyone’s brain is different.

Brain breaks:

I will often have a visual in the room that says “I need a Brain Break.” A brain break is simply a scheduled amount of time (30 seconds to 1 minute) where a student can get up and stretch, lay their head down, doodle, use a calming bottle, complete breath work, etc. These are meant to help them “recharge” their brain and body. If I am working with an articulation client I will usually set a timer for 5 minutes of intensive practice, and then a one-minute brain break! For clients working on goals like asking for help, this is a great time to practice with requesting to have needs met, or a break.

Reframe “mistakes”:

If you see your client make a mistake, CELEBRATE IT! “Yes! A mistake! This gives us a chance to practice problem solving and having a flexible brain! It’s THE TRUTH! Mistakes are learning opportunities; they are not something you need to “correct”; they are an opportunity! Help your clients gain the skills they need to practice self-advocacy and to accept every aspect of themselves.

Positive outcomes tower:

Take some building blocks at the end of the session and have your clients stack the positive moments in their day or session. It doesn’t matter what they are! It’s a visual way to shift mindset, and practice gratitude as well! Build your own tower next to theirs and let them see you practice positive self-talk and reflection as well! This is a great way to work on building their “inner coach,” which is a vocabulary term from Social Thinking© that I love to work with.

If you are looking for specific goals to tie to self-advocacy, remember that asking for or seeking help is an advanced social and emotional competency. It’s often easier for us to offer help than to ask for it. You want to be sure that first you have underlying skill sets, such as joint attention, in place, especially when working with younger clients. This may in fact be your first benchmark for goal-targeting—asking for help or offering help verbally or nonverbally. Also, it’s helpful to observe clients in various settings to determine how or if they seek assistance. Self-regulation is a key component to learning socially and academically, so I am constantly reaching out to Occupational Therapists while working with my clients to see which strategies or tools benefit that individual’s learning. I hope that you find these strategies for “micro moments” of mindfulness and self-regulation useful. Compassion is key, for yourself and for others.


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