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Bringing Cultural Sensitivity to Winter Holidays

Bringing Cultural Sensitivity to Winter Holidays

Kristin Martinez, M.A., CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and clinical quality manager with PresenceLearning. Kristin started her career in 2000 working as an onsite SLP in her local community of Fort Collins, Colorado. In 2013, Kristin expanded her practice to teletherapy. As a CQM, Kristin has the opportunity to work with clinicians as well as district staff to support clinical teletherapy services in districts across several states.

As we approach the beginning of winter, we wanted to reach out to Kristin for some advice on what she has learned over her years of practice about how to create a respectful, inclusive approach to holidays with students, their families, and school staff. In this month’s interview, she shares some ideas.

How can practitioners bring celebration into their work with students at this time of year while avoiding a focus on any particular religious holiday to the exclusion of others?

All holidays should be a time when we are particularly sensitive to the various cultural, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds of the children and families we serve. However, working as teletherapists brings an even greater level of responsibility—while we might consider ourselves attuned to traditions of those living in our towns and regions of residence, we may be working with children from unfamiliar cultural and traditional backgrounds since we have the distinct ability to serve children who can live hundreds or thousands of miles away!

Specific to the winter holidays, there are so many cute worksheets that we might want to use in therapy, with all good intentions to engage our students and to share some holiday fun! However, if the worksheets include pictures or vocabulary that are specific to Christmas or Hanukkah, for instance, some children may feel excluded, uncomfortable, or upset if they do not celebrate either of these (or any!) holidays. Additionally, depending upon their families’ financial circumstances and/or family traditions, not all children experience gifts during the holidays, so try to keep all materials “winter” themed—there’s plenty of winter inspiration out there! We can still inject some extra fun into our therapy sessions with pictures and vocabulary related to snow (or winter in the tropics?), sledding, snowmen, hot cocoa, etc.

What suggestions can you share about being culturally responsive in how to approach the winter holidays with students, their families, and school staff?

This can be tricky! There are certainly some schools and districts that quite clearly emphasize celebration of one particular religious holiday over others, particularly if you are working with students attending a private parochial school. However, you should never feel that you have to utilize materials that are specific to any religion. Not only do we need to be aware of students’ cultural and religious backgrounds, but it’s okay to be respectful of your personal beliefs as well! You can address all speech-language goals without integrating pictures, vocabulary, or themes that are religion-specific. If you receive questions or concerns from school staff or parents about the absence of any such material from your therapy plans, maintain your focus on addressing your students’ communication goals. That’s our job!

Most students love celebration so it’s important to find ways to encourage a festive mood. What works for you?

Of course! Part of the joy of working with school-age students is finding all sorts of ways to use our creativity to make speech therapy fun—cultural sensitivity does not do away with this! SLPs are some of the most creative and flexible people on the planet (in my unbiased opinion), so bring on the snow, ice skating, and cookies. And since our goal is often to encourage expressive language from our students, ask them questions! What do they enjoy about this time of year? What are their families’ traditions? How do they feel about this time of year? This might be an opportunity to gain insight into our students and what is and is not motivating to them.

Do you have any suggestions for decorations and how practitioners might incorporate them into their online sessions?

Take a look at your own background and traditions—what symbols and colors are included in your decorations? We might not even realize that some of the colors we choose (red and green are frequently connected with Christmas; blue and white with Hanukkah) are often associated with specific religious or cultural traditions. Again, there are many options to decorate in a fun and celebratory way that don’t suggest any one particular religious holiday—be creative and enjoy your students’ appreciation of your efforts!

How can practitioners honor various religious traditions, cultural traditions, and a growing population with a secular orientation at this time of year?

While many of us cannot imagine this time of year without caroling, gift exchanges, and church pageants, we must be aware of imposing what is personally significant to us on the students and families we serve. There are many in our country who have traditions based on secular values, so maintaining focus on non-religious themes and activities will also ensure that students from non-secular traditions can participate in the fun! And, most importantly, our therapy activity content will maintain focus on our students’ progress and success with IEP goals. Everyone wins!

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