three circles with image of 2 children in right circle

Speech and Language in the Classroom

The Blog

Friday, 4 November 2016

An interview with... Penny Anne O'Donnell, Consultant Speech, Language and Voice Therapist, Johansen Sound Therapist, Relaxation Advisor

Approximate reading time: 7 mins. 

1) With ‘Stress’ as your clinical interest, what are your favourite relaxation techniques that you implement within your daily routine?

This is such a good question! Often when you spend a majority of your working day discussing the science of stress and how to deal with it, it can be tricky to then listen to relaxation tracks without analysing them!

However, I practise my Calmness Breathing Technique before I even get out of bed in the morning. I find five-ten minutes of low placed expansive breaths can really help to calmly set you up and energize you for the day. Also if you don’t do something first thing it can get forgotten. Whilst doing this I practise my Gratitude Attitude where I think of three people/things/events within my life for which I am grateful. Gratitude and worry cannot exist at the same time so it helps me to feel calm and ready for another exciting day.

For me singing is incredibly relaxing, although I am not sure neighbours would agree, so I warm up my voice in the shower, and then feel safe to sing on route to work.

On route to work I also ensure I exhale each time I hit the brakes as it helps to keep my jaw, neck and shoulders relaxed.

When I can I walk outdoors, it’s a great mind clearer.

2) What has been the most motivating experience you’ve had working as a Speech and Language Therapist, which drives you to continue your research?

This is a tough one as each patient is on a different journey and it is a privilege to guide and support them.

Dramatic experiences include helping a wonderful 24 year old young woman who had not spoken a word since she was 4 years of age. We gently worked on her fears surrounding verbal communication and how to listen to and appreciate the sound of her voice. By the end of our work together she was speaking for the first time in 20 years. She enjoyed communication to such an extent that she went to university and qualified as an accountant.

As a firm believer in the neuroplasticity of the brain and the exciting opportunities it offers for therapy I continue to research into music and its effect on the brain. The work which excites me greatly is the auditory processing disorder work and assessment I carry out and music based therapy I provide, along with strategies for school and home environment.

With Stroke Patients one particular lady had been told she would never speak again. We worked through music and speech therapy and after 12 months of weekly therapy (with a few holiday breaks) she was speaking well enough to take on her role as chairwoman of her local luncheon club.

Oscar, 6 yrs of age, had never sat through a circle time and could not cope with children’s parties due to the noise and refused to swim or go into the school dining area, again due to noise. After working on desensitisation through music, within a month he was fully embracing all aspects of school and was awarded “pupil of the week”.

Looking at the mindset of certain individuals is incredibly inspiring. I was working with one young performer who, at 9, had landed her first West End role when she developed voice problems due to overuse and shouting on stage. Through working together every day for two weeks and maintaining modified voice rest (tricky at 9 years of age when living in a theatre house with the rest of the children) we managed to keep her in the show and she went onto win an Olivier for her performance. Sheer determination on her part.

3) With your interest in researching stress and its impact upon the voice, what would your top tip be for TAs, Teachers, or SENCOs to reduce the ‘day-to-day wear and tear’ that the classroom environment entails?

Feed your voice well. Avoid tea and coffee and fizzy drinks. Maximise your water intake to hydrate the hard working vocal tract. Inhale steam when you get home to reward you. Remember posture try to keep head and neck aligned. Calmness Breathing and work life balance as per my flower of balance (see diagram below). Often you have very little control over the situations which arise in your busy working day, but you do have control over how you react to it. Look out for my Teacher’s voice and relaxation workshops.

Penny Anne O'Donnell's Flower of Balance

4) What would be your main tea-time tip for parents to support their child’s speech development?

Switch off technology. Give your full attention to that family meal and do not worry if one of the children cannot sit still long enough to remain at the table throughout the meal. As long as they are still partaking in the conversation. Try to establish good turn taking skills. Avoid too many questions and aim to speak about the here and now.

With younger children provide a running commentary on what you are doing as you prepare their tea and involve them in the preparation as much as possible. Most daily activities have the potential to become language rich tasks.

Penny Anne O'Donnell Johansen Better Listening Diagram courtesy of
Better Listening Diagram courtesy of

5) How can teachers encourage children not to strain their voices when shouting on the playground?

Safe Shouting by powering the voice from the centre and vocally giving it “Welly from the Belly”
There are three main areas to activate and one to relax:
   - Locate the chuckle muscle (also known as the diaphragm) place both hands in-between the ribs at the front and keeping your head still say a loud “SH!” You will feel a movement.
   - Keep your hands there and chuckle to yourself, again feel the movement. I nickname the diaphragm your chuckle muscle as when you have a really good laugh it aches.
   - Place your hands on your waist, blow a lip raspberry and feel the movement in your waist.
   - Place your hands below your belly button and pretend to sneeze. You will feel a gentle movement in your “Achoo Spot” When shouting aim to shout from these three areas or your “vocal support centre”.

To protect your throat keep it as open as possible. Imagine your favourite celebratory or historical figure arrives at your front door on a Saturday morning. Inhale completely silently through an open mouth and feel that happy surprise feeling at the back of your throat. Then think ten out of ten happy. Note how open your throat feels. Keep this open feeling in your mind before you go to shout and remember to engage your vocal support system. Also stand aligned like a super hero rather than leaning forward or jutting your chin to get louder. Think Wonder Woman.

Look out for Penny Anne's voice workshops and confidence camps. Have a look below at the Christmas Capers voice camp 20th December and Christmas Writing Competition!
Christmas Capers Voice Camp Warwickshire
Christmas Writing Competition 7-18 year olds

Read more from Penny Anne in The Link, Issue 6 here!

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,