I am a second-year SLP in a large urban school district in Wisconsin. Some days, I feel like I am a seasoned professional. Other days (like when the fire alarm is pulled five times), I feel like I am still in my first week of my clinical fellowship (CF) year. I am a strong believer that we are never done learning, but it is important to acknowledge the progress we have made. These are the lessons I learned from my CF year:

Be a smart consumer of internet SLP advice.

There are a lot of different mediums today that SLPs can use to gather information, ideas, or support. As a CF, I found these platforms to be very helpful. I could get ideas on how to proceed with a specific student, I was able to read the advice of more experienced SLPs on topics that I knew nothing about, or I could peruse the threads of “Hey, what’s everyone doing in therapy this week?” and get ideas. However, I sometimes found them to be completely overwhelming. It can be difficult to feel like you are good at a job when you are constantly reminded of all of the things you do not know or all of the questions you do not have answers to. On top of this, the amount of conflicting and unfounded information that permeates all parts of the internet can leave a CF feeling confused and vulnerable. I still use Facebook and Instagram to see what other SLPs are doing, but the bulk of my continued learning happens outside my newsfeed. Shout out to podcasts, The Informed SLP, SLP Summit, and ASHA journals for making me smarter and keeping me sane.

You don’t have to feel bad about Play-Doh days.

During my CF year, every once in a while, I would have a session that I called a “Play-Doh Day”. These were sessions where extensive pre-planning just didn’t fall into place, whether it was because I was busy preparing the 10 IEPs I had that week, or student absences threw off my existing plan, or maybe it was just a Monday after a busy weekend. These days used to make me feel like I was a terrible SLP. I felt a lot of pressure to always look like I knew what I was doing. Now I have guilt-free Play-Doh Days because I am confident in my ability to maximize that time with my students. I have built-in a predictable structure with how our sessions start and end. This structure, accompanied by a visual schedule of our plan for the day, helps students understand expectations no matter what the therapy activity is. With the right tools, and with each student’s goals sitting in front of me, I can maintain intentionality in these unstructured sessions. I use them to build rapport (which increases my ability to manage behaviors), to assess their skills in a more naturalized context (which helps me advise parents), or to work on pragmatic skills (sharing, taking turns, and waiting for the spaghetti maker when you want to use it RIGHT NOW, are all hard but important things to learn!). Play-Doh Days allow me to enjoy my students being kids. There is always value in that.

Don’t reinvent the wheel, but don’t impulse buy 300 things from TPT, either.

During your CF year, you may find yourself in a placement where materials are scarce to non-existent. Or maybe your placement provides a healthy supply of materials, but you still find yourself following the siren call of Teachers Pay Teachers (TPT). It’s important to remember that good therapy is not determined by WHAT materials you have, but rather HOW you use them. Stick to the free materials until you get to know your caseload, your preparation realities (do you have time to cut out 40 penguin beaks? Do you want to?), and your own therapy style (It’s a no on those penguin beaks for me). It will save you time and money for when you do find a tool or activity that is really worth it.

Building rapport with your students should be a continuous intention (even after the first session).

Continue to focus on building rapport with your students. The more they feel respected and valued, the more they will respect and value you. It’s an easy and rewarding behavior management strategy. As an SLPCF, this is the first time where you may find yourself working with students without a foreseeable end in sight. Keep relationship building in the forefront, because you may find yourself working with these students for years to come.

IEP Season: Buckle up. Plan ahead.

This can be hands down one of the most stressful experiences in your CF year. I went into my CF year going from never having written an entire IEP, to being asked to write three of them my very first week. Creating IEPs is some of the most important work we do in this job. It is an opportunity to identify a child’s strengths and how we can use those to build a stronger foundation for them. I stumbled upon the SLP Toolkit assessments halfway through my CF year, and it changed my game. It allowed me to zoom out on each of my student’s abilities, beyond the two to three goals we had targeted for months, and see their bigger picture. I went into IEP meetings and was able to describe a child that both the parent and the teacher recognized, and best of all, had objective data to solidify my perception of that student. I felt more confident in those meetings. Perhaps the most significant improvement was that in a meeting that often focused on what a student was not doing, I was able to provide the parent and their teacher with a list of strengths that they did have. That list provided comfort to the parent that I was seeing their child in a holistic manner. That list also reminded the teacher of ways we could play to the child’s strengths in the classroom utilizing accommodations and supports. Every student deserves an IEP that captures them in a thoughtful light. But doing so for your entire caseload means taking time to plan ahead and working to stay ahead. Some months, this requires a little espresso in my coffee.

Reach out to your support network, celebrate your triumphs, and acknowledge when this job is tough.

My favorite lesson from my CF year was learning how many people wanted me to succeed. Whether it was my family, friends, grad school faculty, or my new colleagues - I always found people who I could celebrate small victories with or who could console me and stand me back up when I felt like I would never be good at this job. My CF mantra was the words of a former supervisor, “You are a skilled and competent clinician.” Make sure you have a network that can remind you of how skilled and competent you are on the days when you don’t feel it to be true. You’ll learn how common those days are, even for the SLPs who we perceive to be rock stars.

After implementing these lessons, I am happy to report that I am now officially a CCC-SLP! If you are currently in your CF year, just remember - you can do it! I’d love to hear about your experience. Leave a comment below to let me know what has worked for you or what you’re still struggling over! You may also reach out to me directly at sbromley3232@gmail.com.

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About the Author: Sarah has a blast working with the entire educational age span from preschool through high school. Sarah received her Master’s degree from Marquette University in 2018. When she is not wearing her speech hat, she loves to grab the biggest cup of coffee from her local coffee shop while taking her dog Ziggy for a walk around the lake.