School District Resources

School Health Services: Speech-Language Pathologists in the School System

Speech-language pathologists are a vital spoke in the wheel of a school system. They serve the specific needs of students who need regular practice and skill development. For many students, a school can be a daunting and challenging environment, without on-site services such as speech and language therapy.

Pediatric Speech and Language Therapy

Pediatric speech and language therapy is a critical service for many children. It involves the evaluation and treatment of children, with ages ranging from birth until 18 years old. Kids who exhibit speech, communication, or swallowing issues are referred for therapy by physicians, teachers, social workers, or parents. Therapy includes an individualized program for children, formulated to address their diagnosed speech or language concerns. Impairments can have many root causes, so a speech-language therapist must be knowledgeable and well-versed in providing treatments. This specialized therapy involves working with many other professionals, to ensure that children receive the full benefit of the services they receive.

The Benefits of Hiring Speech-Language Pathologist

A speech-language pathologist can supply significant and immediate value to a school site. An SLP joins a school-based team of professionals, often consisting of an administrator, special education teacher, general education teacher, school psychologist, occupational therapist, counselor, and others. Each member brings his or her expertise to the table, but the speech-language pathologist supplies a specific set of services. At schools, students seize the opportunity to develop their communication skills with guidance from these specialized experts.

Whether students attend elementary, middle, or high school, an SLP can help them. Speech-language pathologists can benefit children who have been recently diagnosed with a speech disorder or older students who have been dealing with an impairment for years.

As part of the special education team, pathologists partner in intervention, evaluation, and ensure that students work towards IEP goals and objectives. Speech impairments and language disorders are two distinct realms. However, both can affect the child's ability to learn, read, and write, and that is where schools can see the benefit of an SLP. Some services that SLPs provide include increasing phonological awareness, vocabulary building, elaborating language, reading comprehension strategies, and practicing social conversations. They are crucial members of the school who can help students reach their targets across all academic subjects.

What Does a Speech-Language Pathologist Assistant Do?

The primary responsibility of a Speech-Language Pathologist Assistant (SLPA) is to work under the guidance and direction of the speech-language pathologist. However, every duty assigned to the SLPA is for the benefit of students with speech and language disorders. They work directly with children who have a wide variety of impairments and challenges. Additionally, they assist the SLP in screenings and assessments. Documenting student performance is another integral responsibility of the SLPA. Under the supervision of the speech-language pathologist, SLPAs can share information with families, demonstrate strategies, help facilitate in-services, and advocate for students.

Speech-language pathologist assistants can significantly benefit a school setting. They can be a liaison to different stakeholders, especially within the special education department and related service providers. One significant advantage of SLPAs is that they can alleviate the often-overwhelming responsibilities of the SLP. With a shortage of qualified SLPs servicing schools, large caseloads can be a challenge to serve adequately. SLPAs can relieve pathologists in many tasks, which frees up the specialists to focus more of their energy on providing high-quality therapy for all students.

What is the Difference Between a SLP and a SLPA?

Speech-language pathologists assess, evaluate, diagnose, and treat communication, language, and speech disorders. SLPs need to understand the causes and manifestations of speech disorders to provide appropriate and effective services. Some of these disorders may include stuttering, apraxia, developmental verbal dyspraxia, and specific language impairments. SLPs develop individualized plans to treat students with these disorders. Similarly, children have challenges with many different language impairments, which can stem from disabilities such as Autism spectrum disorder. SLPs need to sort through the social, cognitive, and speech-language indicators, and design and deliver services to these students. They also are involved with diagnosing and screening of certain disorders that can affect speech and communication. SLPs provide services in the classroom, one-on-one with students, or in small group sessions.

The primary difference between a SLP and a SLPA is that the assistant can only supplement, as opposed to supersede, the services that the pathologist provides. SLPs have to juggle delivering intensive clinical services, significant paperwork, and clerical duties. Assistants can help alleviate this pressure by performing some of these tasks. They help document, facilitate, collect data, and assist with scheduling and clerical responsibilities.

Schools can benefit significantly from having both a SLP and a SLPA. Working together, they can accomplish many valuable services that help students at the school. As part of the larger special education team, both positions help support students and staff. SLPs can be overworked and overwhelmed with large caseloads, and having an assistant there to help provide relief is critical.

Finding the Right Balance for Your School

An optimal setting for SLPs and SLPAs is one in which all students have access to the required services. This task can be more challenging than it sounds. One evidence-backed approach that works well is a mentorship model. This model allows the assistant not only to perform duties and responsibilities that take the load off of the SLP but also provides a platform for growth for the SLPA. The SLP acts as a teacher and mentor, while the SLPA becomes a colleague and professional collaborator. Both parties benefit from this model, as do the students.

Caseloads vary by state, with many declining to issue minimum or maximum caseloads for SLPs. However, a typical maximum number is around 60 students per SLP. However, without an SLPA, the pathologist will face significant hurdles trying to service all of the students on the caseload. Another factor is the degree of disability of the students. For example, 45 students with mild speech or language disorders are much more manageable than 45 students with severe disorders. The latter scenario would constitute an overextended program, as would one with too many students on the caseload.

Since 2004, with the reauthorization of IDEA, restrictions on hiring qualified speech-language pathologists were considerably eased. Schools can employ unqualified SLPs and SLPAs who do not meet specific accepted standards and requirements. However, this can lead to significant obstacles. Providing high-quality services to students with speech and language disorders is a complex undertaking. Not only do service providers need to understand the disorder, the manifestations, and the potential outcomes, they need to understand the child. Every student is different and responds to services, and providers, in their own way. By hiring qualified speech-language pathologists from a trusted source, schools can ensure that they are receiving only the best specialists. Schools and SLPs mutually benefit, but above all, so do the students.