Reasons why child-led therapy can feel hard

child-led therapy Jun 26, 2024

Child-led therapy is all about following a child's interests and allowing them to lead. Rather than having an adult-directed agenda, we enter the child’s world of play. This means sessions are intrinsically motivating and meaningful for the child. Child-led therapy allows us to establish ourselves as a true play partner and form authentic relationships with the child that are built on trust and connection. Trust is foundational for our language models to be accepted by children. Child-led therapy is also very different from what most therapists and children are taught or used to. For this reason, it can make some clinicians and children feel uneasy. That’s okay, start slow and consider the following information. 

Common reasons why child-led therapy can be hard for parents or professionals and what to do

  • You were taught that successful sessions are planned out and typically happen sitting at a table and/or include printed materials. Compliance-based and/or adult-directed therapy is all you’re familiar with and you don't feel like you're doing your job unless it is.  First, you got this! Trying something new or shifting your typical practice can be scary. You can do this! Sometimes we have to "unlearn" before we can learn. Start to listen to your gut (intuition) and examine what you are doing (in therapy or at home) and why.
  • It involves a lot of "thinking on your feet". When you’re used to adult-directed therapy, the idea of going into a session without a plan can seem overwhelming. Start small if you’re new to child-led therapy. Start with one or a couple clients. Get comfortable with following their lead and thinking on your feet while intentionally incorporating their goals. The more you do it, the more comfortable you will get with the unknown. You're worried about what parents or other professionals might think. Our #1 tip when it comes to child-led therapy is to always put a focus on education from the start. Be very clear with families and other professionals about how your sessions will look, and let them know the why behind using child-led therapy. If they understand what it looks like and why you’re using it, you will not feel pressured to make your sessions adult-directed or look like anything other than play! 
  • Your work environment or parenting partner are not supportive of these methods. Share or seek resources that will allow you/them to dive deeper into understanding how to model language and child-led therapy. We recommend sharing the link to enroll in our free Masterclass on Child-Led Therapy & Echolalia to start. From there, consider investing time in reading a book or taking our course (or both) to help you learn more in-depth about both language modeling and child-led therapy. We also have a helpful script on how to educate others that can be found here.
  • You feel overwhelmed by the amount of items out during child-led therapy. Our #1 tip is to minimize. Less is more and too many items can be visually overwhelming and dysregulating for you and the child. Instead, store away things not being used and use the rule of three. This rule is that you should have no more than three toys or activities out at a time. These three toys or activities should include: two preferred toys/activities/sensory equipment, etc. that you know the child loves or benefits from and one new toy/item/equipment that is there if the child wishes to interact with it. There are no expectations for what the child will play with or do but they are all there for the child to choose from. 

Common reasons why a child may not respond to child-led therapy and what to do

  • It’s not actually child-led, the adult is controlling most of the play and play decisions and/or the child is being offered materials/toys that they have no interest in. Follow the child’s lead. Bubbles? You got it. Balls? Here you go! Don’t force your ideas. Bring in those items of interest and a new item but always look to the child for direction.
  • The child has never been given the chance to independently or free play and much like prompt dependence, is waiting to be told what to do. Some children have had a history of compliance based or “traditional” therapies and aren’t sure what to do. Give it time and be an encouraging, gentle and present listener. 
  • The child is dysregulated and overwhelmed due to the environment or internal or situational reasons. If a child is crying, refusing, crashing, pushing, hitting and/or you are worried about safety… consider regulation. We always recommend consulting with an occupational therapist well-versed in sensory processing  if possible. We need to address regulation before we address communication. Children cannot pick up our language models with a dysregulated nervous system. 
  • The child is not ready for toy play. Not all children are ready for or interested in toy play and that’s okay! Not all play has to be with toys. Think about people play, sensory motor play and/or media for the kids you work with (or parent) that aren’t ready for toy play. Also, we shouldn't let the arbitrary idea of “age-appropriate interests” keep our clients from interacting with toys or engaging in activities that are of interest and meaningful to them. 

Want to learn more in-depth information about how to support gestalt language processors?

  1. There are many free podcasts, webinars and articles to get you started. A comprehensive list of resources can also be found on our website. We just released a new FREE masterclass on echolalia and child-led therapy that is perfect for anyone starting their learning journey or on the fence about purchasing our courses! 
  2. Consider taking the Meaningful Speech course to learn more about how your child or client processes language, how you can help support them from echolalia to self-generated (original flexible) language, child-led therapy, and neurodiversity-affirming practices. Looking for something shorter? We have a 1-hour introductory course perfect for extended family, daycare or school staff.
  3. Consider taking our AAC + Gestalt Language Processing course. It will teach you how to identify, evaluate and support gestalt language processors who use AAC or who you think might benefit from AAC.
  4. Look for a speech-language pathologist (SLP) who "gets it" and can help you in supporting your child's language development. Check out our registry for SLPs who understand gestalt language processing and child-led therapy.
  5. Are you a school-based or private practice clinician looking for intake forms for new clients/students or creative visual reminder posters for your space? Check out the Meaningful Speech Marketplace.
Take me to