Speech and swallowing issues are common among children. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH):
- 1 in every 12 kids between the ages of 3 and 17 will have a speech, voice, or swallowing disorder
- 34 percent between the ages of 3 and 10 will have multiple disorders that make diagnosis and treatment more complicated
An inability to communicate clearly during the years when they are receiving a primary education can create life-long learning disabilities. So the school system is a natural place for SLPs to render services to kids with speech and swallowing problems. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly two out of every five SLPs work in schools. And ASHA, the American Speech Language Hearing Association, estimates that more than half of all SLPs work in an educational environment.
Those SLPs have a broad range of responsibilities:
- Conduct general screenings and diagnostic evaluations of at-risk students
- Provide services on an individual or small-group basis
- Work with and train educational professionals on strategies for mitigating speech and language disorders
- Work with the families of children with speaking problems to ensure treatment occurs both at home and in school
- Work in general and special education classrooms to improve listening, speaking, reading, writing, and learning strategies
- Maintain documentation on students under their care
From Pre-School to High School, SLPs Play a Vital Role in Special Education
In many school districts, SLPs are expected to work across the entire range of grade levels, providing service from pre-school through high school. The treatment modalities for these populations, as well as the types of speech and language issues they are most likely to experience, can be vastly different.
Preschool and Lower Grades
For example, when working with pre-schoolers, SLPs usually focus on the basics of pronunciation: enhancing the repertoire of consonants, improving the accuracy of sound production, and increasing vocabulary and syntax. This might be done with rhyming games, play activities, and imaginary conversations. Some students benefit from using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, which allow mediated communication through the use of symbols or pictures.
Middle and High School
When working with middle and high-schoolers, however, the focus shifts to improving vocabulary through the use of class-work based exercises, decoding the morphology of more advanced words, and working on spelling and grammar skills. At the middle and high school level, SLPs work to involve students more in their own treatment regime, explaining the concepts behind the treatments and the reasons that certain strategies work better than others.
As high-schoolers get close to graduation, SLPs may be involved in transition planning. Moving from the cloistered and supportive world of education out into real life can be difficult for impaired students, and SLPs can ease that transition by helping individuals come up with specific plans for dealing with real-world situations they will encounter outside of the school system.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
Federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) standards govern much of the service to be provided to disabled children in public schools. SLPs that secure jobs with public school systems will become familiar with concepts like:
- Individualized Education Plan (IEP) – Used to outline specific treatments and goals for special education students
- Least disruptive environment – Calls for incorporating special education students into general education classrooms as much as possible
SLPs working in schools spend much of their time documenting progress, comparing performance to district standards and assisting in drawing up IEP documents.
Clinical Specialty Certification in Childhood Learning and Language Disorders
SLPs can learn more about childhood language and swallowing disorders and gain more skills in dealing with the gamut of these issues by obtaining a Clinical Specialty Certification in childhood learning and language disorders.
This certificate, open to holders of ASHA’s CCC-SLP (Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech Language Pathology), is available through the American Board of Child Language and Language Disorders. The program promotes advanced knowledge and skills related to dealing with language disorders prevalent in children up to the age of 21.
Working as a School SLP Brings Diversity of All Sorts
America’s schools remain a melting pot where children of every color and creed are brought together. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 10 percent of American students are learning English as a second language. In some states, such as California, that number exceeds 20 percent. This mix of cultures and languages makes the job of the speech-language pathologist even more challenging, as difficulties communicating with both the child and their family present themselves above and beyond those resulting from any medical issues.
In some cases, SLPs find themselves working through translators; in others, they may have difficulty determining what is a true speech impediment and what is merely a foreign accent. Challenges in working with these students are significant enough that ASHA has devoted an entire section of their website to policy and practice recommendations for working with English Language Learner (ELL) students.
The range of disorders that the average educational SLP will treat on a daily basis is equally diverse. Problems may range from the severe, such as dysphagia, to the more mild, such as basic language disabilities springing from Asperger’s Syndrome. The causes are just as varied:
- Hearing loss
- Cleft palate
- Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
- Cerebral palsy
- Learning disabilities
- Traumatic brain injury
Around 13 percent of school aged children in the United States are in IEPs, but SLPs work with many children in the general population as well, successfully addressing problems like stuttering and dyslexia. As many as five percent of children will develop a stutter at some point, but treatments such as the Lydcombe program have been demonstrated to correct the issue effectively.
SLPs in schools also take on roles outside the traditional diagnostic and treatment range. They serve as resources for teachers who may need consultation on particular language learning issues, and work together with teachers and staff on curriculum for impaired learners. SLPs might also advocate for certain teaching practices they believe to be more effective with speech-challenged students.
They are also likely to participate in research projects, tracking processes and outcomes to find the most effective treatment approaches. In larger districts, SLPs might advance to a supervisory position, overseeing other SLPs, aides, and graduate students training to become SLPs in their own right. In smaller districts, a single SLP might serve as a resource for far-flung schools and spend a lot of time on the road and in new and unfamiliar classrooms, or working with students remotely via telepractice.
Since school systems are such major employers of speech-language pathologists, it is a good idea to become familiar with the role of the SLP in education—most available jobs for new graduates will be in schools. The role is a very important one, and rewarding to those who take it on.