On The Road Again, THF-Style

It's October! We made it through the crazy town that is September! Huzzah! This is an especially momentous accomplishment for any SLP, what with the scheduling and organizing and just generally getting back in the swing of things. But for our clinicians who provide our Hello There service, late-August and September also mean their first on-site trips of the year. These intrepid souls take-off into the great unknown, with suitcases full of the High Quality Service we're known for. They're out there, they're Putting Kids First, and a few of them have generously shared the pictures in this slideshow to give us a little taste of life on the road.

See? We have the best clinicians and we serve the best districts. It's right there in the pictures! We're looking forward to sharing their adventures with you all year long. 

Being a Good Listener: 5 Tips for Special Education Administrators

(This post was written by our THF HR Specialist Extraordiare, Linda Huseby, because I know lots about being an SLP, but not much at all about anything else. Thanks for covering this great topic, Linda! -kcb)

If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.
— Mark Twain.

It’s October — employees are settled, schedules are set, and the school year is humming right along. It is also the time of year when it may become apparent to your employees that certain situations aren’t working as well as they could be. As their immediate supervisor, you are likely the first one to hear about an issue. My years in Human Resources have taught me that the way you listen to employee’s issues matters, and that simply listening the “right way” can solve what previously seemed like insurmountable problems. 

Here are my top 5 tips to help you boost your listening skills: 

Listening Tips Special Education Administrators
  1. Establish Contact First - This step actually happens before any issues arise, but is key in creating an environment in which lines of communication are open and a person feels safe talking to you. Send a quick email to check-in, and offer to come by for a quick chat. An email as simple as, “Hey Judy, I was just looking at your numbers and it sure looks like you’ve got a full plate this year! How are things going? Let me know if you’d like to talk about anything. Thanks for all you do!” can make all the difference in the world in building a collaborative (vs. adversarial) relationship with your staff. 
  2. Be Fully Present - When you do find yourself in a meeting with an employee, do everything you can to give them all of your attention for the time they’re with you. This might mean putting your computer to sleep and ignoring the buzz of your phone, but it also means facing the speaker, maintaining eye contact, and keeping your thoughts on the conversation at hand. Some people find that taking notes helps them stay focused, while others find it a distraction. What is most important is that your brain is devoted to the person in front of you and not to the grocery list!  
  3. Maintain an Open Mind  - Commit yourself to not forming any opinions on the situation. This is hard work! But your goal is tounderstand your employee’s point of view, and that is quite a difficult task when you have already formed an opinion. Reminding yourself to focus on empathy and validation can be helpful. 
  4. Be (Mostly) Quiet - This means no sentence fininishing, no interrupting, no bombarding the employee with questions. Use non-verbal communication and little words like, “yes,” and “I see,” to signal that you’re listening. Listen for what is being implied as well as what is being said. When there is a natural pause in the conversation, make sure that you are understanding by paraphrasing what has been said (“What I hear you saying is . . . ”). If you are truly confused, ask questions such as “What do you mean when you say . . . ?” and “Can you tell me more about . . .? " 
  5. Offer Ongoing Support - When you both feel like you have mutual understanding of the issue, ask your employee what they would like to happen next. Often, the act of sharing acts as a solution in and of itself and there is no other action needed. If this is the case, re-assure your employee that you will check back in with them in a month to see how things are going, then set a reminder to do so on your calendar while you are both still sitting there. If the employee has other solutions, make an action plan with a time line. Again, make sure you both write down what each of you will be doing, when you do it, and how you will assess progress. 

Being a good listener is a skill, and just like any other skill, practice makes perfect. But creating a safe place for your employees to both voice their concerns and create their own solutions is something that will improve your life and those of your employees. Everybody wins! 

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.

Brain Rules and the speech therapy session

I recently read Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and research consultant. These kinds of books with research and science presented through stories and real life self-improvement suggestions always interest me, and this one was specifically appealing to me as parent and educator.

This time though, I began to look specifically for tips and techniques that I could share with my SLPA - ideas for making our speech/language sessions into the most efficient and effective learning periods possible. We work with students who are not learning the same way their peers are. By the time they come to us, someone has noticed that, despite typical exposure to adults speech, interaction with friends, instruction in reading and math, etc., these students have not acquired the expected skills. We are tasked with providing specially designed instruction to explicitly teach these skills, be they tongue position for an /s/ sound, syntax for questions, or academic vocabulary.

How can we make the most of the usually very short time we have with students? And if the instruction and exposure that has worked for their peers has not been effective for these students, what can we do differently?

With these questions running through my head, I was initially disappointed by the first couple chapters, which highlighted big, obviously important issues like sleep and exercise and stress. I didn't feel like I had any control over these factors in the 20 or 30 minutes I might spend with a student. But then, it started to get juicy!

Medina has chapters on Attention, Memory, and Gender, as well as real speechie favorites, like Sensory Integration, Vision, and Music. Here are a couple of my personal take-aways:

1) Choose one task to work on at a time - It is inefficient to switch between tasks, especially since our students are working on new skills, skills that are not yet habit. In his chapter on Attention, Medina writes at length about the myth of multi-tasking. In reality, our brains have a structured sequence of neural messages that take place every time we shift our attention between tasks.

  • To keep this in mind during speech sessions, I plan to limit the extraneous work that goes on while students take turns (flipping a chip into a hippo's mouth after each turn, even rolling a die, spinning the spinner, or moving a game piece!). This is distracting from our therapeutic purpose, not only decreasing time spent on our goal, but requiring the added cognitive effort of frequent shifting of attention and re-focusing. "Sustained" practice may mean different things for different students. Maybe a given student needs to shift tasks frequently in order to maintain focus.
  • I wonder if we could design a session to allow shifts between tasks that all share our chosen goal, instead of shifting attention between hungry hippos, rolling dice, and spinning spinners?

2) Medina emphasizes, in his chapter on Vision, that 'a picture really is worth a thousand words'. Our brains learn and remember visual images, especially those with sound and motion, many times more accurately and with fewer repetitions than spoken or written information. My SLPA and I already use lots of visuals with our students to support learning, memory, and recall in the speech room and the classroom, but I wonder if we might use visuals, and video in particular, to support the effort mentioned above: increased and sustained focus on our chosen goal.

  • What if students working on narrative structure watched a 1-minute video or animated powerpoint on the important pieces of a well-organized narrative? Maybe using the same visuals we will use to support narratives during our session (setting, character, etc.). The goal for the video or powerpoint would be "Less text and words, more pictures!"
  • Could we show a video of correct placement and production of target sounds to start our articulation sessions? Or make better use of the video portion of some articulation apps?
  • What about our students whose academic skills are far below grade level, but are still in the classroom for core instruction? We could support them and their communication and participation goals by collaborating with classroom teachers to identify video to support the grade-level curriculum.

3) We consolidate information into our long-term memory by incorporating new information gradually and repeating it over time. From this, my take-away is that I should stop thinking about the scheduling of speech/language therapy in the schools as a downside to be overcome, and start realizing the benefits of repeat and review information at regular intervals, gradually stepping back supports and adding complexity. This is what we are trained to do, what we are good at! How wonderful that this method is also supported by brain science!

I recommend this book for anyone interested in a quick look into what we know about our brains and how they work. And those chapters on sleep and exercise and stress? Well, if I can't use them in my sessions with students, I can certainly use the ideas to boost my own performance. This blog post came together easily after allowing myself a short mid-day snooze! (see Brain Rule #3: Sleep well, think well)

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:

SLP Funky Bunch Scheduling
  • 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.