Using Behavior Routines in Speech Therapy

What are behavior routines?

Behavior routines are sets of expectations consistently implemented and reinforced in order to support attention, self-regulation, and autonomy.

Why use behavior routines?

First, establishing behavior routines frees up cognitive resources allowing you and your students to focus on what is really important–the intervention. As with anything, when you are learning to do something it requires attention and effort, but after you do it CONSISTENTLY and REPEATEDLY it becomes automated. Once your students have learned the behavior routines, they will implement them automatically allowing them to focus their effort and attention on you and the skill you are targeting.

Second, establishing behavior routines supports self-regulation and increases autonomy. I can relate to my students who feel disregulated when things are unexpected or outside of my control. Establishing routines provides your students with consistency, which supports self-regulation. Additionally, once the routines are established your students do not need to rely on you to know what to do, which gives them autonomy and a sense of control.

What do behavior routines look like in speech therapy?

FREEBIE! Click here to download the visuals pictured above.

My school district uses the Responsive Classroom Model, which is a student-centered, social and emotional learning approach to teaching and discipline. It is evidence-based and emphasizes building interest in learning through engaging academics, positive community, effective management, and developmental awareness. I use many of the components in my own behavior routines.

One component of classroom management that they teach is the idea of using “teacher language” to effectively communicate expectations to your students. I use “teacher language” (i.e., reminding language, reinforcing language, and redirecting language) to consistently reinforce the routines I have established with my students. They have an excellent book about this topic called The Power of Our Words by Paula Denton Ed.D. I wrote a four-part blog series about how it applies to Speech Language Pathologists, if you are interested you can check that out here.

In my description of my personal speech therapy routines above, I mention two resources that I incorporate into my routines that help establish a rhythm to the session: goal nameplates and speech bins. You can read more about those tools here: goal name tags & speech bins.

What do behavior routines look like in your speech therapy sessions?

Thanks for reading!

Structure Your Speech Therapy Sessions Using Speech Bins

If you asked me, what is one thing you learned in your graduate clinical placements that you still use in your practice today? My answer would be speech bins. Speech bins are an adapted work system consisting of three numbered plastic bins (I use a three drawer Sterilite container). At the beginning of each session, you place an activity or set of activities in each bin. During the session, the student(s) work through the bins until all of the activities inside have been completed. Speech bins define the amount of work expected and establish a definite ending to when the session is over.

The idea of speech bins comes from the Structured TEACCHing approach.

What is TEACCH?

The TEACCH Autism Program is based out of the University of North Carolina. It is a university-based system of community centers that offer programs providing clinical services and trainings, and conducting research.

TEACCH stands for:

  • Teaching – Sharing knowledge of Autism Spectrum Disorder and increasing the skill level of professionals and practitioners through innovative education, teaching, and demonstration models.
  • Expanding – Commitment to expanding our own knowledge and that of others to ensure that we offer the highest quality, evidence-based services to Autistic individuals and their families across the lifespan.
  • Appreciating – Appreciating the strengths and uniqueness of Autistic culture.
  • Collaborating and Cooperating with colleagues, other professionals, Autistic people, and their families.
  • Holistic – Adopting a holistic approach, looking at the person, their family, and their communities throughout the lifespan.

TEACCH is known for utilizing a Structured TEACCHing approach, which is designed to respond to the needs of Autistic people using the best available, evidence-based methods known so far, for educating and teaching autonomy. It is not a curriculum or program, but rather a framework to support access to academic instruction and therapeutic intervention.  The framework includes physical organization, individualized schedules, work systems, and visual structure of materials in tasks and activities.

Primarily, Structured TEACCHing aims to carefully construct the student’s environment to support self-regulation and the highest level of independence.

Work Systems

One component of the Structured TEACCHing Framework is work systems. Work systems are bins, each containing an activity to be completed. Work systems, as they are described in the Structured TEACCHing approach, are intended to be completed independently. Therefore, only already mastered activities with clear start and endpoints should be placed in each bin. Work systems teach independence, NOT skills. Work systems help the student answer the following questions:

  1. What work needs to be done?
  2. How much work needs to be done?
  3. How do I know when I’m finished?
  4. What do I do next?

Speech Bins

Okay, so speech bins are basically just an adapted work system. TEACCH emphasizes that teaching organizational and environmental management skills supports not only independence but also self-regulation. Using consistent routines helps our students with regulation challenges by providing a sense of predictability and control. I use speech bins to structure my sessions in a way that is visual and consistent. It is important for consistency and predictability purposes that you always complete all three bins, even if you only spend one-minute or complete one trial on one of the activities.

Image of speech bins (three-drawer black Sterilite container on wheels) to the right of the bookshelf.

For my preschool students and early communicators, I have labeled each bin with a picture of a numbered shape. During the session, I give the student(s) the appropriate image, and they match it to the coordinating image on the proper bin. Using this system provides autonomy within the session and a quick movement break. I use the phrase “1-2-3-Play” to support the students in understanding our schedule. You can find a free download of the basic speech bin labels, speech bin schedule reminder visual, and editable digital speech bins template I use in the Freebie Library.

Image of speech bin routine visual for preschoolers and early communicators. Shows three speech bin labels followed by an image representing play.

Adapting to COVID

In the spring, when I first switched to teletherapy, I continued to use my speech bins to structure my sessions. I relocated my plastic bins to my new bedroom office. I would show the label, place it on the bin, and then pull out the activity. As I transitioned to using more digital activities I created a simple editable, digital speech bin template on Google Slides. I have included access to a copy of the editable, digital speech bins template in the freebie library. I paste pictures or screenshots of the activities I have planned into the boxes on the template and check each activity off as we complete it. Because the speech bins are hosted on Google Slides, you can duplicate the “schedule” as many times as you need and make small adjustments to plan ahead for all of your students.

Thanks for reading!

Read With Me PD: The Power of Our Words (Part 1)

Read With Me PD: The Power of Our Words Reflection Series

Photo of cover of The Power of Our Words by Paula Denton, EdD

My PD read for the month of June is The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn by Paula Denton, EdD. The Power of Our Words is published by The Center for Responsive Schools, Inc. It is recommended reading as part of their Responsive Classroom Model. Every educator, related service provider, and support staff member in my school district attended a Responsive Classroom training at the start of the 2018 school year. The training and information disseminated largely pertained to the general education classroom setting. However, I was able to walk away from the training with with game changing behavior management ideas that I felt I could adapt to my speech therapy room. I am ashamed to say that I actually bought this book back in September 2018 and am only now getting around to reading it, but at least I am reading it!

I was drawn to this book, because of the subtitle, Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn. In almost every IEP meeting I attend, I try to convey to parents and educators the huge role language plays in learning and all of life really. Classroom lessons and social interactions are mediated through language. Having a good grasp of language skills and an thorough understanding of how others comprehend you is essential to academic and social success. Too often I walk into a classroom and hear a well-meaning educator give a five-step direction with negation, conditional commands, temporal concepts, and figurative language, and I primarily work in the kindergarten wing. Even as an SLP, I sometimes stumble into using complex, complicated, convoluted language with my students. Understanding how your students understand you is integral to your ability to provide adequate instruction. Enter: The Power of Our Words.

General Guidelines for Teacher Language:

1. Be Direct.

2. Convey Faith in Students’ Abilities and Intentions.

3. Focus on Actions, Not Abstractions.

4. Keep It Brief.

5. Know When to Be Silent.

Denton, P. (2018). The power of our words: Teacher language that helps children learn. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Today, I want to discuss the Be Direct part, because when I first heard of it I thought it sounded insincere. The book framed the idea better than the trainer had.

Being direct with children is respectful.

When you are direct with children, you clearly tell them your expectations. When children understand your expectations, they are (a) able to rise to the occasion and (b) more likely to trust you. Reciprocal trust and respect are invaluable in creating a learning atmosphere.

The book reminded me of the first lesson I thought I learned, but apparently forgot, from grad school–don’t ask, tell. When you ask a student to complete a direction, you are giving them options. For example, I often say things like, “Could you come sit down at the table?” The could implies that there are two options in this situation: sit down at the table or don’t. When the child chooses not to sit at the table, because he thought there was a choice in the matter, and I become upset that he is not sitting at the table with me, he feels confused. Confusion leads to distrust and does not foster a learning environment. It is much more respectful and effective for me to say, “Sit down at the speech table, we are ready to begin.”

I have also fallen into the trap of comparing students, by praising the ones who are doing what is expected. “I like how Johnny is sitting at the table.” The author of the book says something along the lines of, well that’s great for the two of you, but it is completely useless information to the other children (Denton, 2018 p. 14). Saying that you like how another child is behaving, does nothing to explain what that child is doing to meet your expectations. Instead, try describing the behaviors you would like to see. In the example above, I should say, “Come sit down at the table and show me whole body listening.” Use clear, easy to follow expectations that children are able to execute to direct their behavior.

The next, be direct no-no that I absolutely struggle with, is avoiding sarcasm. When I am becoming frustrated by bad behaviors it is easy for me to slip into sarcasm for some comedic relief. During a recent, particularly terrible teletherapy session, a student paused his maladaptive behavior to say, “Did you just roll your eyes at me.” Yehp! I did…

There are two problems with sarcasm:

-It is confusing to children, especially those with language disorders.

-It is also damaging to your role as a compassionate, caring adult in your students’ lives. The author wrote, “[When a teacher uses sarcasm, students] no longer see the teacher as an authority who protects their emotional safety but someone who freely uses the currency of insult” (Denton, 2018 p. 16). Sarcasm, like indirect language, is damaging to the trust you are trying to build with your students.

When you are feeling frustrated, don’t deflect. That is exactly the moment to define your expectations clearly to improve the situation.

Do you struggle with being direct in your directions and expectations? Stay tuned for more insight from this month’s PD read: The Power of Our Words.

Thanks for reading!


Denton, P. (2018). The power of our words: Teacher language that helps children learn. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.