Autism · social language · Social Skills

How to Teach Power Relationships in Speech Therapy

Power Relationships and social communication

Do your students have trouble submitting to authority figures or bossing their peers around? Navigating around these social relationships, known as power relationships, can be tricky for students with social communication impairments. Keep reading my friends, and I will tell you why we need to be working on power relationships in speech therapy, and how to teach them!

If video is more your thing, go check out this video on how to teach power relationships!

What are Power Relationships?

According to ASHA, Power Relationships, are the ability to understand and appropriately use deference and domination in social communication. While this may sound a little strange at first, it just means being able to understand how to act in social situations with authorities, subordinates, and a peers.

How do I teach my students about Power Relationships?

I am so glad you asked! All you need to get started is to follow the 7 steps I will outline below!

Step 1: Teach the Vocabulary

I would start teaching this topic by introducing the vocabulary. I like to do this using an interactive social narrative, that opens a discussion about the topic. Chances are, your student has never heard the words “authority”, “subordinate”, “power relationship”, or “peers”. If they have heard them, they may not be familiar with what these words mean. Here are some definitions you can you use:

Power Relationship: A connection between two people defined by how much power/authority one person has over the other

Authority: A person with the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience

Subordinate: A person with lower rank or in a lower power position

Peer: A person with equal power to you

Often times our students with social communication disorders also have language disorders, which can make learning new vocabulary challenging. So, make sure you are using lots of examples and visuals as you are teaching these new vocabulary words.

Step 2: Identifying Power Positions

Your students might be confused what their power role in a relationship is, so the next step is helping them identify people around them who are their authority figures, peers, and subordinates. I would do this with some kind of graphic organizer or visual. This helps the students to see that they have many authority figures and peers, but they probably do not have any subordinates. This can be difficult for some students to accept.

Identifying Power Positions in Speech Therapy
Here is an example of a graphic organizer I would use to teach power relationships in speech therapy!

Keep this in mind as you teach this step: Older siblings and students are probably peers. Not all adults are authorities. If your student needs a subordinate, they can call a pet or themselves a subordinate.

Step 3: Why Are Power Relationships Important?

Students who struggle to submit to authority, need to understand that authority figures are put in place to make and enforce the rules. These rules are made to keep us safe and to keep things running smoothly. If we did not have rules there would be chaos. As you discuss this, help your students think of examples of what would happen if we did not have authority figures.

Step 4: Showing Submission

This step is tricky because it requires the student to understand and appropriately use nonverbal language. Make sure your student understands the types of nonverbal communication before you move to this step, then discuss the ways that you use nonverbal communication to submit to authority. For example, using appropriate tone of voice, eye contact, body language, gestures, and personal space.

Teaching students to submit to authority
Consider these aspects of nonverbal communication as you discuss submitting to authority!

Step 5: Dangerous and Safe Strangers

Remember how I said not all adults are authorities? We need to be very, very careful we are not teaching our students they have to submit to all adults. Are most adults safe? Yes. But are ALL adults safe? NOPE. Students with social communication deficits tend to see things as black or white, and do not easily catch onto nuances. It is our responsibility to teach them what they need to know to stay safe.

Start by explaining that most adults who are wearing a badge and/or a uniform are probably safe. BUT even when talking to these people, they need to be listening to what the person is saying and see if it is appropriate.

For example, if a doctor tells you “take off your shirt and get on the table” this is expected and appropriate for the student to submit to the authority of the doctor. But if a store manager gives the student the same directive, well, this is not appropriate and the student should not submit. You will need to spend a lot of time on this step to make sure your student is able to identify dangerous and safe strangers.

Step 6: Rules

This step is for the student who likes to boss around his/her peers. In this step, you will discuss the different kind of rules: posted, social, and imagined.

Posted Rules are rules that are written somewhere, for example, “don’t steal”.

Social Rules are not written down, but we all know to follow them. For example, “don’t pick your nose in public.”

Imagined Rules are rules that we made up for ourselves. For example, “this is my chair and no one else can sit here.”

Many times, our students will have some imagined rules that they are trying to force on their peers, even though they do not have the authority to do so. As you work on this step, make sure your students understand they are equal to their peers and they should submit to their authorities.

Step 7: Self Monitoring

Once your student understands power relationships and why they are important, you need to teach them how to practice the discipline of self monitoring. To do this, have your student think about a recent interaction they had with a peer, authority, or subordinate. Guide them through this process by asking the student to describe the interaction, tell what the did well, and make a plan for improvement.

References: (2020, February 21). Check Your Power Position: Helping Individuals with Autism Navigate Power Relationships. Lecture presented at Texas Speech Hearing Association 2020 Convention in Texas, Houston.

Now for the good stuff…

If you are new to teaching power relationships in speech therapy, or if you are just don’t have the time/energy/desire to make your own lessons, I’ve got you covered. I’ve put together this teaching guide for you using all the elements I’ve listed in this post. Oh! And if you are interested in the digital version, I’ve got that too!

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