This has been a challenging fall to say the least. We have all been thrown into remote learning or a hybrid version of school. Tensions are high among parents wanting their kids back in school and teachers wanting to be back in school as well. But no one wants to contract COVID. Most of us are still figuring out what all of this means for our day-to-day practice.
As I reflect on the first months of being a school-based SLP this year, I can think of a few pointers that have helped me. I hope they might also help other SLPs make it through.
First, I have accepted the fact that this year is not going to “feel good.” Most everything feels off, in fact. Usually back-to-school is a fun and exciting time as the weather starts to chill and “pumpkin spice” starts to appear in grocery stores and restaurants. There’s the hope of a fresh year, and I feel ready to dig-in with high energy and enthusiasm. But that was certainly not the vibe this fall. It’s odd to not see kids in person. It’s uncomfortable not to meet in person, especially with the new kids on my caseload. It feels impersonal and cold. As an SLP, I thrive on connection with my students, and that piece is simply missing.
The other piece that feels “off” is the sudden, total reliance on technology. I am using multiple platforms and multiple new applications to do my job. This has brought with it a lot of new learning, frustrations, and feelings of insecurity about my abilities as a “virtual” SLP. Am I doing it right? Or at least good enough? I haven’t felt insecure about my professional ability for nearly 20 years (we all remember our CFY). But this year is different. It just does not feel comfortable.
Second, even if things do feel off, I’m looking for moments of hope and humor in the midst of this madness. Kids do funny things, like showing up to teletherapy without a shirt on, or having their dog make a cameo performance in the middle of a therapy session. That was odd. Yes, it could be problematic that I am getting such an intimate window into kids’ homes. But seeing the puppy gave me a laugh, and that’s ok. I moved on and created a social story about “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors for this new world of virtual learning for my kids who struggle with social communication.
Third, I have needed to be flexible, and go with the flow. For me, that has meant, in part, that I needed to lower my expectations for myself. I am generally a flexible person, but I do have high expectations for myself as a clinician. But this year is not a typical year, and there have been a lot of new things thrown at me in just these last few months.
I have to be dynamic and do a lot more problem solving. How am I going to do therapy for speech sounds with a fogged-up face mask through a plexiglass guard? How can I possibly get through over 60 “fall meetings” this month to talk about IEPS, services, and remote learning with my caseload? How can I call everyone on caseload to get therapy scheduled?
And, yes, I know some things have fallen through the cracks. It was inevitable. I had to be flexible and reprioritize. Instead of getting ready by prepping therapy, doing classroom observations, or putting together a schedule the first week of school, I have been calling parents, hosting meetings, and tracking down consent forms. Well planned therapy sessions will have to wait! I’m giving myself a pass on that, and that’s ok.
The last thing I want to point out is that eventually this will all settle down and being an SLP will feel OK again. And I’m not talking about some distant future when we all get “back to normal.” I’m talking about a new normal that seems to be slowly, carefully emerging. It was such a relief to finally start tele-therapy with my caseload. Providing therapy is the fun part, the part of the job that I love, and the part that kind of “fills my cup”. Therapy is what the kids really need (not a meeting talking about therapy). Who doesn’t love all the funny things kids say? So, I try to focus on the basics. As SLPs, we went into this field to help people with communicative disorders. That part has not changed.
I have to be creative for assessments: with the exception of testing articulation, a lot of other standardized tests are not available to me in a digital format. So I use language samples (surprise!) as my go-to. I can collect a sample over teletherapy pretty easily. A conversational sample always works well. With older students, I am having good luck using the expository protocol while screen-sharing the planning sheet. It was actually easy! A language sample gives me data on language, phonology, organization, and even pragmatics. I can also use the outcomes for baseline goal data. So even while remote, I use language samples. In my district, we are only just now starting to see students one-on-one for assessments.
As for therapy, I have found that most of my favorite therapy activities are do-able virtually with only minor modifications. I love using Boom Cards™ or sharing a PDF and annotating. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Last week I worked on describing and sentence expansion by doing a “science experiment” over my document camera. The kids were into it and it got them talking! It’s working. So, that’s ok, too.
So, yeah, this year isn’t going to be great. But that’s ok. It’s ok because we are going to get past this. Things are going to get better. And, when they do, we are going to be better at our jobs. We will have new tools that we can take with us in the future. We will have new appreciation for our kids and our communities and our own resilience.
So my advice is, keep things as simple as you can this school year and remember why you became an SLP. You are doing great things for your students! Hang in there and grant yourself a little grace as we get through this most unusual school year!
Joyelle Divall-Rayan, M.S., CCC-SLP
SLP: Vancouver, Washington
Director of Education & Training: SALT Software