As a speech-language pathologist, Hettie Johnson believes in a holistic approach to helping children who struggle academically. “Our children always take the blame so much for everything,” says Johnson. “They often think they can’t do anything right. I want that to change – focus on what they are getting RIGHT.”
We had the honor to sit down with her and discuss her methods.
Hettie, thank you for being with us today! We’ll start with a basic question – what made you decide to get into this field?
I love helping people! When I was in high school, my mother (who was a nurse) pointed me toward becoming a speech-language pathologist (SLP). It will be 46 years in June since I became an SLP!
I had been an SLP for 30 years when I started specializing in dyslexia. We were moving back to Birmingham in 2000 when long-time friend Dr. Denise Gibbs offered me a position evaluating students for dyslexia in the Alabama Scottish Rite Foundation Learning Centers, of which she was and continues to be the director. She said since I was starting a new private practice she thought I may enjoy working with dyslexic students and I absolutely fell in love with them! At the end of my first 2 weeks of Orton-Gillingham training I remember saying, “it’s like taking everything I had learned as an SLP for the past 30 years and honing it in with a laser.”
What exactly makes you love it so much?
In the field of dyslexia, you can just change lives so tremendously! It’s absolutely amazing! I commonly see that my evaluation, which includes spending the entire day with the student and parents demonstrating strategies and demystifying dyslexia, can actually change the course of a whole life because the family finally has answers. For example, one mother wrote me an email saying “thank you for changing the course of our lives!” Wow! This is what keeps me going!
My kids have so much incredible potential! They are so creative. It’s so common for this to happen.
One of your trademarks is that you believe in helping a child holistically. By that, I mean you not only believe in remediating the weakness, but also in focusing on a child’s strengths and emotions. Tell me about that.
Well, I developed a program called SPA. It stands for “Self-Talk Positive-Mistake-Correction and Self-Advocating.” This is a very explicit strategy that helps students to NOT shut down. A lot of our kids shut down due to stress – fight or flight.
The first part, “self-talk” is all about that inner voice. So often for a child who struggles, their inner-voice will get them down. I say “you talk to your brain and tell it: ‘Brain, you’re not going to shut me down today!’ This is for those times when you are thinking ‘I can’t do this.’ It’s your job to keep your brain happy! Keep your brain in the SPA!”
Parents are also a huge part of SPA. To the parents I say, “please don’t say ‘But you KNOW this!’ or ‘Remember?’ because it crushes the child and makes them feel there is something very wrong with their brain. I learned this from dyslexic adults when I asked what had especially discouraged them as children. This is where the P in SPA, Positive Mistake Correction comes into play. Even if a paper comes home with tons of red ink, look for the part where the child got it RIGHT and praise that area!
I think it’s also important for parents, teachers and tutors to take some of the blame. Say “I didn’t teach that part well – let’s check that piece and you’ll get it!” Our children always take the blame so much for everything. I want that to change. Say something like “You got the beginning and the ending right! Now let’s check the inside of that word!”
The A in SPA is all about advocating for yourself. If you need something, ASK – ask your teacher, ask your tutor, ask your friend for what you need to keep your brain feeling safe so you don’t shut down.
This sounds like a really unique approach.
Yes, it really is. I also have something I call SWAG, which stands for Study with All Gears. One of my students at Auburn came up with this – use your multisensory strategies! This is an important part of OG (Orton-Gillingham) based teaching.
Also, I love to show my kids the booklet that came with my Dyson vacuum cleaner. Did you know Mr. Dyson is dyslexic? He is. It took him 5,127 prototypes before he got it right. What if he had given up after he only did 5,126?
On your website, I saw that you have “3 magic keys.” What are those?
We touched on the first 2 keys above – SPA and SWAG, but my third key, and I think you’ll like this, is audiobooks! The reason I tell them that audiobooks are so important is because they build a foundation for language. That, to me, is the crux of it. They build a foundation for auditory processing. Get hooked on these books so that you’re listening to language and learning!
I loved it when I heard Dr Maryanne Wolf say “the more you know about a word on many different levels, the faster you will read and comprehend it.” To me, audiobooks really embody that. You’re learning more about words on so many different levels. I really want my kids to get hooked on reading and learning!
You can watch my talks on the 3 Magic Keys for More Success with Less Stress here.
Hettie, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today! I have learned so much. Is there anything else you want to add.
Just my motto – more success with less stress and more time to play!
– Jules Johnson
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Our newsletters will keep you up-to-date on important news in our community of parents, educators and volunteers who are committed to supporting student success.