When education shifted online in March, schools were challenged to find new ways to support the needs of their most vulnerable students such as those who need special education services and speech therapy.
I’m a speech language pathologist for students in PK through 6th grade at Warren County Public Schools in Kentucky and like other schools across the country, we tried to determine the best way to set up the school year when students returned this fall.
Ultimately we started the school year on a hybrid schedule, with students attending in person on Mondays and Wednesdays, or Tuesdays and Thursdays. For speech therapy, though, we switched almost entirely to serving our students via teletherapy. This was a big deal for our therapists because it was the first time we’d ever provided services through this format.
I work with a diverse mix of students who have issues ranging from autism to Down’s syndrome, with some being completely non-verbal. The most common issues I see are articulation disorder, speech sound disorder and apraxia. I was used to helping students through in-person instruction – physically modeling how to form certain words, and doing hands-on activities with them. Teletherapy seemed to be the best option, but required some major creative thinking, brainstorming, pivoting and planning in order to pull it off and successfully serve our students.
The other speech therapists and I got together and brainstormed how best to serve our students online. Ultimately, we decided to create a stable of resources that all of our therapists could access in the cloud. We talked about each skill we might need to work on with students and we collaborated to come up with a list of what we felt were the best online resources and downloadable materials to teach each skill. Then we gathered all of those links and information and put them in Google Slides so we could all access them, as well as edit and update as needed. We also talked about some best practices for working with families to help them be a part of their child’s therapy.
I was initially nervous about doing teletherapy, but now I’ve found it to be a very successful means of providing instruction, with one of the major benefits being increased carryover in the home environment. I love that we’ve found a way to continue to help students succeed even when school schedules are altered or schools are closed for in-person learning.
Here are some of my takeaways from this shift:
Prioritize a strong internet connection
It makes it difficult to have a successful teletherapy session when the internet connection is slow or choppy. We have had to work with our district on solutions to overcome this challenge. Therapy sessions are typically 30 minutes per child, so it is important to make sure there is no lost time trying to solve technical issues during sessions. Teletherapists should make sure to work out any connectivity issues in advance so we don’t end up losing minutes during a student session working out the glitches.
Create a stable of resources and make a plan
Organize everything in categories and have easy access to them. One of the main resources we used was the Super Duper Digital Library, a collection of hundreds of educational print products that are digitized and put online to help speech therapists during the pandemic. Once we had our resources in order, we got together and created the slides for each resource. For example, in our articulation slides we have it broken down by sound. If we’re helping a student make the “R” sound, there’s a slide that explains how to make the sound and a video to share with the student.
Pick materials that will keep students engaged online
Teaching speech therapy is very different when it’s done online, rather than in the classroom. The good thing is that we have a big community we can draw on. I’ve accessed videos of what other speech therapists are doing. They’ll go through visuals like the “mighty mouth” hand puppet from Super Duper that shows how the mouth is supposed to move to make certain sounds. I’ll talk about it, show the video and have the students practice. Most of the materials I’m using are ones that I would have used physically as well; I’m just using them online now. Visuals and short videos help students stay engaged.
Help students create a new sense of routine
Students had their routines totally disrupted this year with the shift to online learning. This change can be especially difficult for students with special needs. It is important to create a new sense of routine for students. During our sessions if a student is having a difficult time adapting to participating in the session online, I try to put them at ease by asking a parent or grandparent to sit with them. I also try to get parents or caregivers to help the students create routines during the rest of the day – for example, perhaps by practicing certain skills at lunch time, before brushing their teeth while looking in the mirror, or before bedtime at night.
Breathe – and be flexible
I feel like a lot of the speech pathologists in my district were overwhelmed in the beginning due to the uncertainty of the situation because we didn’t know whether the district would opt for a fully online plan, an in-person plan or a hybrid model. What we would do in each scenario is completely different so it can be stressful not knowing what the plan is – or if that plan might change next week or next month. It is important to just take it one day at a time. Breathe and know that we won’t have all the answers, but as long as we’re doing everything in the best interest of the child, then we will be successful.
Laura Burns is a speech language pathologist at the Warren County Public Schools in Bowling Green, KY. She uses resources such as the Mighty Mouth hand puppet and the Super Duper Digital Library to support speech therapy in the classroom and during remote learning.
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