March 3, 2016

A common critique I hear from graduate student clinicians who train in the school setting is that they are actively learning about working collaboratively with teachers and providing therapy in classrooms in their university courses, but when they arrive to their externships the bulk of speech/language services are provided in a pull-out model in the speech room.

To the maximum extent possible, students with disabilities must be educated with non-disabled students. This is referred to in IDEA as Least Restrictive Environment. There is not a lot of evidence on the effectiveness of various service delivery models, but what has been done suggests that working in the classroom helps with generalization of skills. In addition, collaboration between a teacher and an SLP develops the teacher’s awareness of an individual student’s communication needs, the SLP’s awareness of the impact on curricular activities, and development of effective strategies to support those needs in the classroom. This type of open communication and mutual working knowledge of a student also allows for the provision of services to be adjusted based on ongoing educational needs driven by changes in classroom expectations, activities and curriculum versus when those services are provided in the speech room alone.

So if it’s so good for students, why is it so hard to implement classroom-based services into our real world practice?

Well, first of all the traditional pull-out model is comfortable. We as SLPs are in charge of planning, structuring, and enacting any and all activities for students in this environment. Therefore, collecting data is easier, planning is easier, and program management is easier.

Second, teachers may not want you in their classrooms. (“What? Me? But I have so much to offer!”) Let’s view this from their perspectives for a minute. Teachers have a class of students all school day, every school day, not once or twice a week for 30 minutes in small groups. They are responsible for ensuring all students in their classrooms learn set academic standards, and in some districts/states teacher compensation is dependent upon high stakes standardized test scores. If they don’t see you as a resource to aid them in student achievement, they will be reluctant to even entertain the thought of having you take up any of their instruction time.

So how can we go from theory to practice with students on our caseloads?

Whether you are new to the idea of collaboration or have tried it before, there are several things you will need to consider moving forward:

  • Provide a Continuum of Services: Working in the classroom is one option when determining how to best meet the needs of a student, but it will not work for all students. Factors such as attention, behavior, or the specific skill a student needs to learn (e.g. learning oral placement to establish the “r” sound) that do not lend itself to working in the classroom. However, with every student, start with what can be done in general education. Ask yourself, what components of the skill can be addressed in the classroom? Can all needs of a student be met in the classroom or is a blended model more effective? Can services be started by providing targeted instruction in the speech room and then move to carryover in the classroom? The answers will be different for all students, and can even change for a student during the school year. Just because you start with that “r” sound in the speech room, once it is established re-evaluate whether or not you can transition working on that skill in the classroom.
  1. Define Roles for Instruction: You don’t want to feel like an instructional assistant to the teacher, and you also don’t want it to be a time for the teacher to catch up on emails and grading. Collaboration is working together so all students in the classroom (including the students on your caseload) fully understand and participate in the lesson. The SLP’s role is to provide targeted, specially designed instruction so SLI students can access the general education curriculum. The SLP may co-teach, lead the lesson, or support the lesson led by the teacher (e.g. provide a visual support outlining key information from the lesson on the whiteboard as the teacher instructs). The SLP may come in with a strategy for learning vocabulary or could be one of the intervention stations during a centers rotations. Note: Pulling a student to the back of the classroom while the teacher is doing a lesson is not collaboration. It is pull-out therapy in the classroom.

  2. Define Roles for Classroom Behavior Management: Determine who will follow up if a student is not complying with classroom expectations. If you are going into several classrooms, it is usually easier for the teacher to take this role as expectations can change from classroom to classroom. Determine this role before stepping foot in the door to work with students, not in the moment.

  3. Protect Planning Time: Everyone says there is no time to meet for planning, but we live in a digital age. Share information/planning through emails, texts, Google chat. Make your planning time as focused as everything else. Don’t spend time chatting on weekend plans etc. Schedule and protect this time. Discuss what reading story they are on, social studies or science unit, concepts students are struggling with. This is important not only for going in to classrooms but for connecting work in the speech room to curriculum relevant information.

  4. Get Administrative Buy In: Talk to your principal and provide information about what you’re doing and how it benefits students. Share data, share experiences, brainstorm challenges…by including your principal you are educating her on the educational role of an SLP vs. a clinical model. In addition, your administrator can assist with logistics that can make collaboration difficult (e.g. determining how SLI students are assigned to classrooms, acquiring materials, allowing for flexible scheduling models, advocating for manageable caseloads).

  5. Proceed with Strategic Implementation: Even with a well-structured plan, it is best to start small. Find a teacher you respect (or are friends with) who trusts you to come into the classroom. This way you will build a reputation for being a valuable contribution to the classroom as well as build your own confidence in the process. But forewarning: prepare to be comfortable with discomfort. Embrace the idea that there will be growing pains, and that what works in one classroom with one teacher and one set of students may not work for another. Accept that just when you think you have a system down, you will need to rework it. The process of collaboration is dynamic. Merriam Webster defines dynamic as “marked by usually continuous and productive activity or change.” And if you think of what that word means, this is what we do for our students every day. We actively seek the best ways to teach strategies to make something stick.

Special education is a service not a place. Removal from general education should only occur for specific, focused, direct instruction when needs cannot be met within the classroom with modifications, adaptations, and supports. By working with teachers versus just reporting our data to them, we can have targeted communication strategies carried over daily and more meaningfully contribute to a student’s ability to access his curriculum.