Call of the Wild: A Speech Language Pathologist’s Journey into the Arctic

Hi!  I’m Sara Ecker and I am a speech-language pathologist in search of exploration and adventure.  Last year I found the ultimate assignment as a SLP in the Northwest Arctic Borough, Alaska.  This year, I invite you to come along with me as I blog about my experiences in the Great White North.  Join me as I travel to remote villages, survive extreme conditions and learn about the rewards and challenges of therapy 30 miles above the Arctic Circle.  

Flying over Southern Alaska on my way to Kotzebue.

Flying over Southern Alaska on my way to Kotzebue.

Seeing grizzly bears and moose is part of the reason I work here.  From a few hundred feet in the air, flying on a bush plane, I feel pretty safe.  I have gotten used to flying as a means of transportation, but the thrill is still fresh as I get to sit up front near the controls on this particular flight to Noatak.  This is the second year I’ve decided to work in Alaska in the Northwest Arctic Borough and this is my first trip of the year.  Every other month I make the trek up here to do therapy with kids, check in with the teachers, do evaluations and IEPs.  This trip is very special in that I get to go to a village that I’ve never seen before.  Selawik and Kotzebue are where my other students are located and they are starting to feel familiar. I know where I can see a caribou leg hanging out of a garbage can. I feel content and accepted as one of my students runs up behind me on the boardwalk and takes my hand while we chat. Every village represents a new something that I didn’t know before and helps me with the puzzle that is life in the Arctic.

On the flight to Noatak

On the flight to Noatak

The school in Noatak

The school in Noatak

Noatak is a village on the Noatak River and watching salmon spawn, jumping into the air like a water display, I see first-hand how fish are ingrained into the lives of people who live here.  Catching, preserving and eating fish is a big deal here.  Fishing and hunting is how people here survive.  They live the subsistence lifestyle like the Inupiat have done for centuries.   The kids give me a culture lesson every few days so I can learn how to survive with them.  They tell me how to tell if a salmon is still good to eat (if it has white spots, you have to throw it back) or how to not kill a ptarmigan if is alone, as it has bad spirits or is sick. 

On the boardwalk in Selawik

On the boardwalk in Selawik

As a person from the lower 48, I am experiencing a new culture, life and set of values.  At times, I feel like I’m having an out of body experience, trying to suspend what I think I know and try to see and experience life from my student’s point of view.  My language samples are more to do with hunting or skinning a caribou than asking what kind of super hero they want to be or what sports they like to do.  I like it.

I currently have around 55 kids on my caseload. When I’m not visiting the students in person, I am using Skype to connect with the students, special education teachers and educational assistants that help me do direct therapy from 2000 miles away.  During the “August visit”, I am typically trying to figure out how to find time to schedule all the kids, what I need to take home (40 lbs of textbooks) so I can support their learning in the classroom and doing the usual evaluations and IEPs.  Although Skype therapy may not appear at first to be as good as therapy in person, I love how connected the team is to my goals and what I want them to do every day.  There is no therapy in a little speech room.  Here the principal, sped director, teachers and assistants are in on what I want for the child to do.  It really is a team approach,  unlike what I have sometimes seen at other schools.  It’s true, I need to rely on others for materials and sometimes they have to be my hands, ears and eyes, but I like that we are truly a team. We are making our way, trying to connect a remote area of the world to the 21st century. 

I'm looking forward to my next trip (in October), and sharing my travels with you!  

Famed caribou leg in garbage can.

Famed caribou leg in garbage can.

Scheduling and The Funky Bunch

No, not THAT Funky Bunch (although who doesn't love a little 90's pop in the morning?). I'm talking about that mishmash of kids that, despite all of your scheduling heroics, you just can't fit into the schedule anywhere else. You know the group I'm talking about. It's the one with a 5th grader with a stubborn /r/, a 3rd grader working on following multi-step instructions, and a kindergartner who stutters. This is the sort of group that can make even the most seasoned clinician shake her weary head and wonder what on earth she's going to do to give each of them the attention they need. 

First of all, I want to say that we've ALL been there. Scheduling is perhaps the most complex thing the school-based SLP does all year. So many moving parts - student's needs, teacher's needs, admin's needs, reading blocks and math blocks and specials and lunch and . . . oy. I start to sweat just thinking about it. You do your very best to get students into groups that maximize both student growth and your sanity, and I'm wagering that you do a pretty great job at it. Yet still, the Funky Bunch haunts you. 

It haunts you because you know you're not doing your best work, and you know that this set-up isn't in the best interest of your students. Sometimes, though, we just have to make the best of what we've got. Here's a few tips to help you and the Funky Bunch make that proverbial lemonade:

  • Consider Breaking Up the Band: Maybe you ended up with this crew because you were looking for a solid 20 minute block in which to see them all. Take (another) peek at your schedule. Could you see them each individually for 10 minutes 2xweek? Or 5 minutes daily? This sort of schedule is fantastic for the the artic kid especially. Pull 'em into the hall, drill drill drill, shoo them back into class.  
  • Use an Age Difference to Your Advantage: Mostly always, big kids really like feeling like they've got the inside track on school life, and they relish the opportunity to help out the little guys. This concept applies for kinders and 5th graders, 8th graders and 6th graders, 9th graders and 12th graders, and every grade in between.  Empower the older student to act as a clinician while you give focused attention to the other student(s). They can surely listen for overt artic errors, read 2-part directions to be followed (while working on their own smooth speech?!), and do other such things. 
  • Action Stations: Break your session into 1 or 2 or 3 mini-sessions, with students rotating through different stations every 7-10 minutes. Have an app station, a movement/art/game station, and a direct instruction station with you.
  • Work Smarter, Not Harder: A group like this is the perfect place to maximize self-management and -monitoring techniques. Set things up so that they can walk in the room and grab their own materials, take at least some of their own data, and chart their own progress. You can use bins or folders or whatever, just as long as it's not up to you to be managing all of that stuff in the short 20 minutes you have together. If they can get to your room independently, too, all the better. 
  • Get Some Fresh Eyes on Things: In my tenure as a contractor with Hello, I've have had the great fortune to have been called into short-term duty to help out many an SLP who was utterly swamped. (Sidebar: Yes, we do that! Yes, it's awesome!) One of the first things I do when I land in one of these placements is sit down with the resident SLP and look at the schedule. Sometimes we don't come up with any changes, but you'd be amazed at what a colleague might be able to see that you're not. It's that whole forest for the trees thing. Bring your scheduling woes to your next SLP meeting and see if you can't buddy up with someone for a schedule audit. If nothing else, you can commiserate with each other, right? 

Above all else, be kind and gentle with yourself. Do your best to help the kids in the Funky Bunch and make a commitment to yourself to continually re-evaluate whether you can do anything differently or better. And when you feel like giving up, come back to this blog post and watch this video. If the world survived this era in music, you'll survive your Funky Bunch.

Building Connections

Each Spring, the Hello Leadership Team decides on a theme for the upcoming school year. It's our hope that the theme will help to guide our decision making regarding the continuing education we offer to our clinicians, the topics we cover online and in our paper newsletter, and, of course, the company-wide fun events that we host during the year. We spent the 2013-14 school year focusing on Networking, and the natural extension of that became this year's theme: Building Connections. 

Building connections is really at the root of everything we do, isn't it? We're building neural connections in the brains of articulation kids, and we're helping another student connect text to life. We're working with a general education teacher to connect the curriculum to speech-language targets. We're sitting alone in our office, pouring over the CCSS, connecting those lofty goals to the humble IEP goals we're writing. We're connecting with other clinicians in real life at job-alikes and conferences, and virtually through blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Connection is the name of our game, baby.

We have loads of super exciting stuff in the works for this year, and we hope all of it will help you make meaningful connections both at work and at play. So cheers to a new school year, and to building new connections!

Common Core: What is our role?

Common Core Standards - What is our role?

The Common Core Standards  (CCS) were created to provide “a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them (”  As Special Educators, our role in helping students to meet these standards is important.   

We found some tips for Learning Specialists and Speech-Language Pathologists to keep in mind, as suggested by Perry Flynn (M.Ed. CCC/SLP North Carolina Department of Public Instruction) who presented at the American Speech & Hearing Association Schools Conference in July 2012:

  • DO integrate CCS into special education services.  Go to, print the CCS and bring to your IEP meetings.

  • DO develop IEP goals to help children achieve common core standards to align with general education expectations. Use previous grade level standards if appropriate.

  • DON’T copy standards verbatim into IEP goals, as they are expected for all children.  Our role as special educators is to provide specialized direct instruction to help students achieve them.

Looking for more information on the Common Core and students with special needs?  This article from Education Week is a good place to start.

Research Tuesday: Children's Auditory Working Memory in Noisy Conditions

Research Tuesday.jpg

Autumn, in my professional life as a school-based SLP, is a fresh slate, the start of a new cycle, and a time to start new habits. It is that, and it is also the chaos of trying to pick up where I left off, put together a schedule from pieces that don't seem to fit, all while making efforts to educate myself on the new developments in education and pedagogy.  

It was in that mindset that I came across this study looking at the impact of noise and chaos on students' cognitive skills, specifically working memory. Strong cognitive skills, including working memory, allow us to compensate for less than ideal circumstances. Auditory working memory in particular is a strong predictor of academic and communicative success. 

The Details: Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, August 2014, Vol. 57, 1503-1511. doi:10.1044/2014_JSLHR-H-13-0286.

The Question: These researchers wanted to know if students would perform more poorly on a task of auditory working memory in a noisy environment than in a quiet one. Additionally, they wanted to know if the change in performance on the task might be related the difficulty of the task. In other words, they thought that a noisy environment might have only a slight impact on an easy task, but a more significant impact on a challenging task.

The Method: Researchers met with 20 typically developing students between 8 and 10 years old. They gave them a series of 3 memory tasks, in a quiet sound booth and in the presence of competing four-talker babble noise. The simpler task were Forward Digit Recall (repeat the numbers you heard) and Backward Digit Recall (repeat the numbers you heard in reverse order). The cognitively challenging task, also presented in quiet and in babble noise, was called Listening Recall, where students listened to an increasing number of sentences and then were asked to judge each sentence true or false, and recall the last word of each sentence. 

The Results: It is not surprising that students performed better on auditory memory tasks in quiet than in noisy environments. The more interesting piece is it didn't matter how challenging the task was. Each task was affected by noise in a similar manner. 

The Take-Away: Overall, for the 8-10 year olds participating in this study, auditory working memory performance on all kinds of tasks decreased as listening conditions worsened. The interesting post script, though, is that the effect of complexity of a working memory task in noise has been well documented in adults. This suggests that the skills required for working in background noise or managing additional simultaneous cognitive tasks continue to develop throughout adulthood. This is important for those of us in working with students - the cognitive load of a given task is impacted by the context. And classrooms can be full of babble noise!