December 13, 2015

I am a Speech Language Pathologist, and one of the coolest things about my training was studying the brain and the science of language development. Knowing things like what the hippocampus does, the critical components of being an effective communicator, and the impact we can have on a student’s ability to access the curriculum - it’s all pretty fascinating.

And when I assess a student or talk to colleagues, I can get really wrapped up in the science of it all. Give me a report to write and I will tell you all about how the student could not describe a picture scene using sufficient details or with the gestalt intact, or how in conversation he didn’t use morphological markers to represent present progressive verb tense, or how during a narrative retell referents were not clearly established or maintained.

But in education, we are not dealing with textbooks and case studies. These are real students, with real families, and there are real implications for what is written in an assessment report or said at meetings - specifically determination of special education eligibility and programming.

SLPs are accustomed to using complex communication terms as well as educational jargon which often end up going over the heads of the parents and general education teachers we work with. Using common everyday language in multidisciplinary evaluation reports and IEPs is a critical but often overlooked practice. Both the MET and IEP processes are designed to be products of team-based decision making. If a report is not written in parent-friendly terminology, the SLP will be the only really informed member of the team and therefore will often dominate the decision about services for a student.

You may say, “But Lisa, we do give parents the opportunity to attend meetings and ask clarifying questions.” The truth is, many parents are present but not active participants. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just they don’t always know how. They may have questions but will not ask because they don’t want to look uneducated about the process, or they may just implicitly trust the school-based team, or they may not know what they do not know. Furthermore, these meetings can involve heightened emotions related to a discussion about a child’s failures and successes in school, which further compounds comprehension of the information presented.

Think of the last time you personally received very important information - emotionally charged information. Our bodies naturally respond to such situations with emotions. We end up being stuck in our subcortices dealing with the fear, anxiety, or sadness, and therefore cannot use our frontal lobes to critically evaluate the information we are hearing.

MET and IEP meetings are typically not emotional for us. We are there reporting on and helping a student - what is there to be emotional about? But that is because this is our every day - our normal. We have to remember that this is not the case for the families and general education teachers we work with. They see the daily struggle this student is having and just want to be informed so they can best support that student.

If we can reduce the need for extra information, follow up questions, or repeated explanations, both the school team and parents will feel better about the decisions made. Here are some tips for improving your use of parent-friendly language in meetings and reports:

  1. Use common everyday words. Skip the fancy speechy ones like pragmatics, theory of mind, phonological processes, and velopharyngeal insufficiency. Instead, say what you understand those terms to mean (e.g. “He has difficulty understanding what other people are thinking.”)
  2. Use real-world examples/analogies when possible. Connect the deficit or skill to something that is seen in the classroom or at home.
  3. Be concise. Use sentences that are 15 words or less.
  4. Focus more on the descriptive. Focus less on the scores.
  5. Use visuals. Graph out information on charts to show visual representations of scores.
  6. Avoid use of acronyms or abbreviations. Instead of saying terms such as SPED, PBIP, LRE, use all of the words and explain what they mean when applicable.
  7. Ask questions. “Do you have any questions about this?” is not sufficient. Guide the parent/teacher into opening up about concerns they have or clarifications they need frequently throughout the meeting.

We all want to know the why behind a problem. And we all want to know what that problem really means in our day to day lives. It is no different, and perhaps critically more important when speaking to parents about their children. Using analogies and real-life examples to explain the various complex communication needs of a student provides the parent and school staff with a solid foundation for interpreting the information, helping that child, and improving tolerance for the student’s disability.

“The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.” - Joseph Priestly