Sounds Like We’re Heading Back to School – Tips and Insights for SLPs Surviving the New Year

Back to School.

As SLPs head back to in-person therapy, most of us acknowledge that we’ve experienced a lot of change in the past year that will likely impact how we work in the future.

There have been times when our resourcefulness surprised even ourselves.  One of my favorite examples was the Green Screen movement.  How could I have ever imagined I’d be appearing on my students’ screens riding in a cartoon rowboat on a cartoon ocean, pulling target words out of the sea and making them disappear at will?  Who would have thought I’d be creating animation effects by discretely controlling a series of specially created virtual backgrounds with my index finger?  Not only were the children (okay some of them) amazed, but I felt like the guest star on Blue’s Clues!

Much to my husband’s disappointment, the requisite enormous lime green felt still hangs prominently on our family room wall, a clashing testament to the fantasy worlds that SLPs like myself created during Covid and a symbol to remind us that much of these worlds will remain with us as we forge ahead.

But tomorrow I leave my fuzzy wall behind – it’s back to school.  Getting prepared for this school year is familiar and yet so foreign in many ways, requiring adjustments to our usual routines, which have been anything but typical for the past year and a half.  As an SLP working in school and private practice, I’ve compiled a few tips that may help:

Ring Out the Old – We’re inclined to hold onto everything, but it’s best to start the year unencumbered by unused materials that take up shelf and head space.  Do you have a hard time disposing of tests that have already been replaced with revised versions?  Do you have speech therapy materials in your office that have been sitting untouched since 1985 with pictures of typewriters and dial telephones?  If you know to occasionally Marie Kondo your closet or garage, then you probably also know your speech therapy room needs the occasional purge. Be careful of course to not dispose of that which doesn’t belong to you, but if you take the time to make space for materials that you’ll use, you’ll rediscover some fabulous tools that you didn’t even remember you had.

IEP Management – IEPs don’t schedule or write themselves, and failure to conduct them on time is not an option; so make sure to develop a surefire system to keep track of expiration/renewal dates. I myself am a visual person, so I’ve resorted to color-coding my caseload list. Pinks due in September, Oranges in October, Yellows in November, etc.  I’ve been able to easily spot which students’ IEPs were coming around the corner.  Other SLPs may rely on technology for reminders.  In any case choose and stick to your system to stay ahead of the game.

Data and Daily Progress Notes – A fresh start means considering new ways of doing old things.  Think about how to collect daily notes this year.  Are you working in more than one building?  What makes the most sense for you and your caseload?  Perhaps standard manilla working files for each student still work best. Perhaps a three-ring notebook divided by school or student sections would make more sense with goals listed in front of each section.  Some students have accumulated years of paper baggage, and you may not need to lug out all their past IEPs and evals each time.

Do you treat children in groups?  Taking the time to create group data forms makes data collection a breeze in the long run. I prefer when my group data sheets are created to reflect the same order of the children seated in front of me.

While some swear by taking daily notes digitally, I’m not about to pull my focus away from the child during therapy.  Thankfully, TikTalk technology will solve for this by determining and recording a child’s accuracy automatically.

Work Within Mask Limitations – With school mask mandates in many locations, speech therapy continues to be a challenge.  You may want to consider using clear plastic masks labeled and stored properly for each child as well as for yourself.  Yes, you’ll feel like you’re doing speech therapy in a tropical rainforest (the heat and fog are real), but a misty glimpse of the mouth may be worth it.  And yes, the irony that with telepractice we could actually see the full mouth the entire time is not lost on us!

Schedule-Friendly – With the pull-out model, we must acknowledge that the benefit of our services introduces some measure of complication for the student and teacher.  They may miss content, assignments, project clarifications, etc. thanks to Yours Truly.  Goodwill toward your fellow teachers will go a long way as you build your schedule.  Remember you’re on the same team.

Show Flexibility – Not all of school is traditional reading, writing and arithmetic. Special guests, assemblies, and projects bring learning to life and make fond school memories. I’m not about to get in the way of that magic. One time I approached a classroom only to find the children engaged in an elaborate role-play. This creative teacher transported the children to an improvised “airport” in the hallway, with “passports” in hand going thru “check-in” and “security.” I turned around and ran away as fast as I could, making a note to catch up with that child later in the week. I’d rather not disengage my students when they’re enthusiastically engaged in something very special.

Reinforce Class Content – Speech-language sessions are more relevant and effective when you’re able to reinforce subjects and topics that the child is learning in class. I have found that usually the teacher will be all-too-happy to collaborate.  For example, working on /s/ and learning about the solar system lends itself beautifully to a speech therapy activity targeting solar system, sun, Saturn, Venus, Uranus.  Use class subjects for inspiration when you can.

If You’re Still Doing Telepractice – We know telepractice is here to stay even as we head back to our brick-and-mortar schools. In the short term some SLPs may need to continue speech therapy remotely. Long term, some states may opt to support reimbursement for telepractice, not only to protect against Covid-19 but also to cover areas where there are SLP shortages.  In any case, I hear Ross on Friends hilariously yelling “Pivot, Pivot, Pivot,” and I believe this will be the SLP mantra going forward.

In the teletherapy space, we will increasingly learn to be selective about the platform options available to us. Recently I spoke to an SLP in Cleveland who dismissed a child she had been treating on Zoom based on his seemingly improved /s/ productions.  When this SLP heard the child in person, back into therapy he went!  Lamentably, the quality on Zoom made the continued distortions impossible for the SLP to discern and led to a premature dismissal.

Researchers at Boston University put various HIPAA-compliant teleconferencing platforms to the test: Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams, Doxy.me, VSee Messenger, and Zoom.  They found these platforms to do a poor job at capturing voice evaluation measurements and suggested it might be due to internet connection or bandwidth issues. Although voice therapy may not make up the bulk of our caseload, the issue of sound quality will continue to be a topic of concern.

The TikTalk system is ahead of the game here, recording audio ranging from 20 to 16,000 Hz.  Also, since the TikTalk platform processes and records to the tablet or iPad itself, there is no interference.  The audio is uploaded to the cloud digitally with its quality preserved in full.

Seek Out More Digital Options –Even outside of telepractice, it is high time we benefit from the myriad of digital options available to us.  We’ve now proven to ourselves “Yes, we can.”  Technology can help us with planning and treatment, and we don’t have to be a teletherapist to benefit.  What I like about TikTalk, for example, is its remote asynchronous control, quick customization tools, high quality home practice recordings, progress reporting, and the motivating power of fun video games.  Embrace the speech therapy technologies that will help you do your job, only do it voluntarily this time!

Yes, tomorrow it’s back to school.  Pivot, Pivot, Pivot.  Yes, we can!

Sandra Laserson MA CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist in Cleveland, Ohio.