What SLP Workload Concerns Really Mean, and How to Address Them

“I need help. There’s too much to do!”

The year has barely begun, and already many administrators are fielding questions or complaints about SLP workloads.

How can they be overwhelmed already? Doesn’t crying “workload!” in the first month of school seem a little dramatic?

No administrator wants to start the school year listening to complaints about SLP workloads… but perhaps SLPs are just poor communicators in these moments. Instead, it might do well to present their situation in the context of student growth.

What SLPs Should be Saying

Research from ASHA suggests that SLP caseload size has been found to have an inverse correlation with student outcomes. In short, as caseloads increase, weekly service time and individual attention begin to wane. The result? Elongated program involvement – and subsequently decelerated student progress.

The fact is, there are consequences when time and staffing are stretched:

  • SLPs have no choice but to abandon individual therapy and increase the size of therapy groups.
  • Consultation and collaboration with teachers is often cut.
  • Service models are narrowed to address the lack of collaboration time (which results in more students being pulled out of the general education classroom… The only actual classroom in which we’ve been mandated to see student growth. How’s that for irony?)

What This Means for Your SLP’s Workload

In other words, when SLPs complain about workload in the first month of school, the message isn’t that they’re overwhelmed or being dramatic. Despite how hard SLPs work, if they are stretched too thin, it will inhibit students’ ability to make functional progress.

7 Ways to Address SLP Workload Concerns

With that in mind, here are 7 ways district administrators can realistically (and effectively) address workload concerns with their SLPs.

1. Create an environment of consistency district-wide.

Often SLPs feel others have lighter caseloads and advocate for help with their own. And all too often, administrators respond by comparing numbers of students between specialists.

While consistency is a worthwhile goal, numbers of students alone do not come close to capturing how an SLP will be spending her time in the building. (5 students remediating /s/ & /z/ do not carry the same collaborative and time demands as working with 5 students with autism.) A true environment of consistency is one based on overall expectations of work.

2. Define SLP expectations clearly, including identifying how long it should take for each student to demonstrate functional growth.

Too many districts give SLPs complete autonomy when it comes to delivering service. This makes evaluating their work and influencing their practice nearly impossible for administrators.

Not to mention, many administrators have no expectations around how long it should take for kids to demonstrate functional growth, and therefore have no way to monitor progress. This resource from Progressus Therapy highlights the importance of measuring outcomes in the school setting.

Make sure all expectations are clearly defined for your SLP – including eligibility criteria, educational impact, service models and considerations. If your SLP practices in the best interest of student progress, she will be happy to see this happen.

3. Encourage SLPs to pass specialized knowledge to others in the building.

Not all of your students’ speech therapy time has to be logged with an SLP. Paraprofessionals, classroom volunteers, other students, teachers and parents can all be taught small structured pieces of therapy to help a student practice and generalize various skills.

4. Allow for structured time in a monthly schedule for SLPs to collaborate.

A student’s IEP might dictate 30 minutes of service, but that doesn’t account for time spent educating teachers on therapy techniques or collaborating with peers – which severely inhibits program success.

Eric Richards, Coordinator of Student Services in Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Oregon committed 10% of a building’s SLP service time to non-IEP responsibilities. The goal was simple: SLPs were told to use the time to collaborate and influence student progress.

Some taught sound productions in Kindergarten classes. Others spent time scaffolding curriculum. Still others taught educators how to reinforce speech objectives in the classroom. These efforts resulted in quality referrals, eligibilities and dismissal rates. Make sure your SLPs have time to devote to collaboration outside of their IEP responsibilities.

5. Look beyond the number of students when determining SLP workload.

As mentioned above, student number alone is not an adequate measure of an SLPs’ overall workload. Be sure to account for different types of disabilities, consultative time, existing staff knowledge, and other variables when addressing your SLPs’ workload.

6. Determine data points to monitor.

Develop a shared understanding of what objective information will be most informative when evaluating SLP performance, making the discussion more productive and student focused. Operating in the common interest of students allows professionals to look forward, focusing on positive change rather than assigning blame about inequitable workloads.

7. Bring in help.

Large SLP workloads are often unavoidable. In these cases, don’t be afraid to seek out help – even if it’s for an abbreviated, immediate need. Bringing quality short-term SLPs on board can fortify collaborative efforts, and help your team with time-intensive projects including testing, screening, and teaching classroom strategies.

Securing short-term SLP help can deliver important returns in the long run. By providing your high-quality, student-focused employees with the supplemental support they need, you’re empowering them to be successful, and helping ensure to ensure the long-term progress of your students.

If SLP workloads are putting your students’ progress at risk - we are here to help. The Hello Foundation provides districts with highly-qualified SLPs to support the unique needs of your speech program. Click here to meet our pool of talented SLPs, or give us a call at (503) 228–2942 to learn how we can help.

Boys In the Boat… or Staff in a School?

This week I made the much anticipated transition from summer vacation to school year. My head is still filled with the glory of campsites and kayak mornings and swimming pools, even as I find my body in a stuffy little speech room poring over caseload lists and IEP dates. I know that my summer activities serve to refresh and renew my professional self, but sometimes there is a more direct connection.

One of my favorite reads this summer was Boys In the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, the story of the unlikely victory of the University of Washington men’s rowing team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was not a book I had planned on reading or that I would have thought would have much connection to my professional life, but the story has stuck with me and I find myself thinking about those nine men in a boat as I begin my school year this fall. 

Competition v. Cooperation

Whether grad school and job interviews are still fresh in our memories or a thing of the distant past, we got to where we are because we were able to compete and win. We fended for ourselves. Like Joe Rantz, we learned to forage in the proverbial woods and build brawn through long days hard work. We had to compete and look out for ourselves to get into grad school, to get a job, to get that next position. 

But now, as an SLP in the schools, we find ourselves in a situation we cannot win on our own. Whether advocating for a student or looking for efficiency in the sea of paperwork, it is not a job that can be done by out-competing our co-workers. Cooperation is the name of the game when you are working on a team - and school-based SLPs are on many teams: speech/language teams, SLP/SLPA teams, building sped teams, student-specific teams, and so on. We only win when we pull together.

Knowledge v Social Skills

If you’re going to get up at five in the morning in the cold water in February and put yourself through that kind of torture day after day, which is what they have to do, there’s a mental toughness that comes in. To me, it’s as remarkable as their physical toughness.

But [crew members] also have to be amenable to fitting in with other people. I know from a crew coach’s point of view it’s hard to find people who can combine those two things: the mental strength and the social skills.

- Daniel James Brown

The first lesson I learned coming out of grad school was that I hadn’t learned everything. Since that day, I have been reading and watching and working to pick up more specific skills to benefit the kids I work with. It’s still sometimes hard to believe that I’m supposed to be the expert at the table, but as an SLP, I do bring unique skills and experience to my school-based team. It’s a lot of information, from many sources, on the gamut of approaches and disorders —  that’s the SLP version of the ‘mental toughness’ Brown sees in rowers.

And yet, all that knowledge is of no use if a school-based SLP does not have the skills to build bridges and create working relationships with co-workers and parents. There is a balance necessary between knowledge of the current research, and the ability to ‘sell’ the approach to the team, the family, the students.

In recent years (with maturity?), I have realized that there are times when we may actually have to do less than what we know is best, or agree to an approach that is less than best-practice, in order to build relationships for the future. When we show that we can listen and attend to the needs of the team, we build trust and connection — the only hope we have of actually “pulling together”. 

After all, if the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers were able to defeat elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936, certainly a team of special educators united for a cause can overcome whatever is thrown at us this year! 

 

 

How Speech & Language IEP Goals Should Align with Common Core Standards

Huge thanks to administrators that shared our checklist “Common Core and Speech Therapy: How to Guide Your SLP”.  

In today’s post I hope to answer one of the most common questions we receive from administrators:

How Should Speech & Language IEP Goals Be Aligned with Common Core Standards?

This is a great question. To answer it, I recommend that administrators read Catherine Crowley’s Leaders Project post (Jan 2014).

I have a great deal of personal respect for Dr. Crowley.  In this post, she not only outlines Common Core in relation to speech and language IEP goals, but even provides case studies of students with various challenges for specialists to reference.

So there you have it – how to integrate speech language goals with Common Core standards.

But is this the right question?

Imagine all SLPs in the country master this knowledge, reference common core appropriately (as determined by their district program), and write down the correct information in the boxes provided on the IEP.

Is anything really going to change for the student?

I have the privilege of partnering with some of the best administrators in the country, helping to fill SLP vacancies with high quality talent. After years of conversations about moving students forward, I feel that I’ve honed in on the real question they’re interested in.

How do we make these macro changes relevant to special education and the kids we serve? How do we effect real change within our program to see student growth in general education?

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Common Core and general education.

Forty years have passed since the adoption of IDEA. In our relentless passion, commitment and fortitude to help students – we have often forgotten that the mission is really about promoting success in general education.

IEPs are generated to determine what general education should look like for the individual child, given the realities of growth for a year of school.  Everyone’s plan will look different depending on their unique needs.

Which is why I can understand administrators being so desperate to align the IEP process with Common Core standards. After all, this is where we want to see students be successful.

Where paperwork falls short…

The fact is, a student’s IEP may align perfectly with common core – but if not translated into practice for the surrounding team, all of our best efforts will be lost.

If we really want to see student growth in general education, SLPs need to be given permission and responsibility to translate speech and language goals for general education teachers. It simply isn’t reasonable to expect students to make growth in an environment in which the specialist never sets foot.

And so finally, to the question administrators really are asking: 

What is high quality speech & language service in relation to the Common Core?

  • SLPs need to be asking questions of teachers regarding the depth of any curriculum topic being used to address Common Core standards.
  • SLPs need to be able to explain and model how speech and language goals fit into lesson plans and expectations.
  • SLPs need to have time to observe different teaching styles with which their students are working.
  • SLPs need allies in their buildings – paraprofessionals and/or teachers interested in learning how speech & language development relate to student progress.
  • SLPs need to be able to collaborate with families, to establish support outside of the classroom and move toward success in the classroom.
  • SLPs need administrators who understand that this takes time and effort, which can’t always be neatly captured in the number of direct minutes per month of service. 

Just remember, isolation doesn’t work.

You may not realize it, but there are two distinct enemies of high quality service. They are:

  • SLPs working in isolation. Sure, they might be in the building most days (so that administrators can “check the box” that speech and language needs are being addressed) – but how is service really being delivered?
  • SLPs too busy to be aligned with general education.

So the next time you find yourself asking how to align speech & language IEP goals with Common Core standards – consider whether the real question is how to continue to put kids first – by providing high quality service to students.

Have a question about Common Core standards, or how to ensure high quality service in your district? We’re here to help. Give us a call at (503) 228–2942.

The Best SLPs are Thieves

I know. A bold claim, right? You're thinking that I'm wrong, that the best SLPs, the ones we all idolize, they're original thinkers. They're innovators. They have ideas that no one has ever thought of before and they change the game when they come forth with a new theory, a new approach, a new technique, a new product. 

Go read this post by the great Seth Godin. It's about stealing other people's ideas. It's about encouraging you to steal ideas. Go ahead. I'll wait. 

Great! Welcome back. Now, did that shift your thinking a little bit? Because I'm here to tell you, it rocked mine. 

As SLPs, we rely on the ideas of others to build our practice. Who among us spent the summer tooling around on Pinterest, grabbing ideas of how to set-up a room for the Fall, or the units we’ll tackle this year? Has thumbed through a pile of catalogs and then thought, "Y'know, I have an idea for Kai . . . "? Has been to a conference, had that moment when the speaker says, "Well, when I have a client like that, I . . . " and had their mind sent racing with all of the possibilities for their own practice? See what I'm saying here? You are a THIEF. We all are. And it's what makes us, and our profession, so vibrant and alive. 

I think (and talk) a lot about the art of what SLPs do. Yes, evidence based practice. Yes, data driven decision making. But also . . . yes, finesse. Yes, creativity. Yes, magic. Because SLPs get to use and touch and feel and MAKE magic. It doesn’t come from looking at a page full of numbers and marching formulaically down the path to dismissal. It is born of that little flutter in your belly when you look at those numbers, do 32 google searches, read 5 abstracts, marvel at the ideas on 17 SLP blogs, think about a client/student/patient you had 8 years ago, have a vague memory of something you learned in grad school, and the semblance of a “new" idea that just might be the breakthrough for this kid begins to take shape. The magic, and art, is facilitated, no, RELIANT, on the stealing that Seth Godin extols.  So as we all stare down the barrel of a new school year, I say unto you . . . Go forth! Steal! Give credit where it is due, and then pay it forward by sharing your own ideas. Together, we make more magic than the entire Disney compendium ever could. 

App Review: ChatAble 1.3

The newly updated ChatAble 1.3 is now available from Therapy Box! I received a review copy of this AAC app, which offers communication through symbol-based grids as well as visual scene displays. Initially, I was quite taken with the combination of features provided (especially the Write Pad — more on that later!) and my mind ran away with the possibilities for using scenes and grids together. The timing of this review (end of school year) made it difficult for me to find many opportunities to use the app with kids or in classrooms, but afforded me ample time to explore, create, and play in the app. After using the app for a bit, I have dialed back my expectations for incorporating hotspots into my own photos and scenes, and created a bit of a wish list for future updates! 

 

A hotspot-embedded scene from ChatAble 1.3

THE WHAT: The features of ChatAble 1.3 are stellar, catering to several modes of nonverbal input, and showing creativity and innovation on the part of the developers. AAC apps for the iPad should be intuitive, easy to use and customize, and allow users to take full advantage of the internet and of their own photo and media libraries, and ChatAble 1.3 makes serious efforts towards all of these ends. ChatAble 1.3 allows communication using symbol-based grids, visual scene displays with embedded hotspots (think photos or drawings with embedded ‘buttons’), and pages with combined visual scenes and grid components (e.g. a hotspot-embedded scene with additional vocabulary or links to other pages below). Hotspots in the scenes can be associated with speech output or link to another page or to audio/visual media. Some really neat extras include the ability to set an alarm so that a message comes up taking you to a specific page at a set time, and being able to set a GPS location for a scene, so that the page is brought up automatically when the user is in the right location. 

The Keyboard function is pretty straightforward, allowing users to type a message which is spoken when the message window is tapped. I read in the downloadable User Guide about the ability to customize the placement of individual keys, but I crashed the app once while trying to figure out how to do it, and even when I followed the directions exactly, I never got it to work.

The WritePad feature from ChatAble 1.3

As I mentioned above, I love the WritePad feature! In this mode, you have a yellow pad on which you can write with your finger or stylus. The app interprets your writing, giving you additional options if it does not guess accurately, and eventually speaking your words. Great for short messages or closing a feedback loop for written language - “I can hear what I wrote!”

The quirky corner menu for editing and settings that ties the rest of the pages together doesn’t seem to fit as well on these alternate screens, in fact it is not even there for WritePad. Instead the user has a Back button in the upper left. The inconsistency makes it feel like this feature doesn’t quite belong with the rest of the app. 

Editing buttons in the bottom right of the screen

The feature that I most missed when exploring this app is the ability to lock the app down and limit editing by the user. There are lots of instances where it is great for the user to have easy access to editing. However, in working with young people with ASD in an educational environment, it is often desirable to be able to password protect or otherwise restrict access to settings and editing. When this is not built in to an app, I have sometimes been successful using the Guided Access option to restrict access to certain areas of the screen (i.e. where the Edit button is!), but I think that even if I left the navigation button accessible and created a guided access region that covered only the Edit and Settings buttons in the lower right corner, functionality of some pages might be impacted. 

The HOW: I’ve separated my thoughts on features and design from those on functionality because, although I love some of the features, they just don’t work as smoothly as I’d like them to. The real test of the functionality of an app like this is in creating your own grids, scenes, and pictures. As I was most excited about creating hotspots in my own pictures and visual scenes, I was most disappointed that this feature just doesn't seem ready for prime time. I'll describe my experience below, but the slow reaction times and the lag between actions make this an unsatisfying way to express yourself and inappropriate for true conversation. 

Having used other similar communication apps, I felt confident creating a variety of pages, and even customizing appearances and linking different forms of media. Though it may not have been necessary, I did read through the basic, but readable User's Guide, finding additional information on the Search function (It's in the Toggle menu!) and the GPS/alarm functions. I had the options and actions I expected to have in creating the pages I had in mind. Using my own pictures for grids and visual scenes was very straightforward, as was adding hotspots to a scene, and using images from the internet (you just have to save them to My Photos from outside the app… Would be cool to be able to do that from within the app, but the app’s Symbol Library is pretty thorough).

The frustrations I had were largely related to response times within the app. I should preface this all by saying that I installed the app on my old-school 64 GB iPad 2, running iOS 7.1.2, with 15 GB of available space. Not the newest hardware, but also still widely used in education. So, I’m used to things running slowly, but when I started the app, it took 10 seconds of a blank white screen before the logo began to appear, and then an additional 15 seconds before the home grid came up. If I had a student who used his iPad for other things, but wanted to be able to bring up the communication app when he needed it, this would not work. 25 seconds is interminable when you are waiting to say something. Once it was running, it usually came up as quickly as any other app, but even this was not consistently reliable. Sometimes (maybe after some period of not being used? maybe it crashed while I was doing other things?) it started back with the 25 second white screen process, even though I thought it would be already running. Because this was a review copy, I didn’t have the option to install it on a newer iPad, so I can't speak to how it might perform on a newer machine.

This wait time was also evident as I was working within the app. The hotspots were simple to create in my photos or visuals I found online, and I easily added text for the app to read or recorded my own audio. But there is an uncomfortable lag (1-3 seconds?) between touching a hotspot in a visual scene and hearing the message, whether the message uses the app’s voice or is a recorded message. I created a hybrid page (visual scene with grid buttons below) where one of the grid buttons was a link to another grid page. Though the audio label plays right away when I use that button, it takes a full 9 seconds for the linked page to open. The response time for hearing the message is much quicker when working within the grids, but even then if you touch a second cell too quickly after the first, the audio for the second does not play at all, though it will show up in the message window, so it could be played all together by tapping the window.

The BROAD VIEW: Overall, I love the ideas in this app. It’s probably most appropriate at this time for communicators working at the level of single words or just beginning to combine words. When using AAC apps like ChatAble on the iPad, my own clinical focus is school-age students with communication disorders including autism, with a range of verbal abilities. I love the collection of features because there are so many options that appeal to my students. Accessibility features like switch access and ‘touch anywhere’ scanning are easy to use. Visual scenes with hotspots provide context to abstract vocabulary and give structure for practice and more consistent use. Options for alarms and GPS triggers provide opportunities to fade cues and increase independence for users. The keyboard and WritePad provide for exploration, creativity, and play turning letters and words into voice. 

The delays in response times within the app make it hard for me to imagine using this with communicators who are combining ideas or who might need multiple layers of pages beyond the Home Page grid to provide them with adequate vocabulary. It’s also probably not a good option for the creative clinician or care provider who wants to create and link lots of pages. It isn't yet an option that allows for a lot of growth, and I’ll have to stick to other AAC systems for my students with higher needs. 

Right now, there’s enough potential that I plan to explore ChatAble with some of my emerging communicators. It will be fun to use the visual scenes and options like WritePad. I will definitely keep my eye out for updates, as I would love to use photographs of students’ own environments as visual scenes for communication. (Think: a photo of the front office with hotspots for appropriate greetings and interactions with office staff, a photo of the Play-Doh table with hotspots for all the different action words you can use, a photo of a student’s transition work site with hotspots allowing him to ask for help with different issues)

A funny post-script: In my experimentation with setting alarms and start time for pages, I typically set them for a time in the immediate future when I I knew I would be using the app. I guess I must have left one on because late last night a shocking train bell sound erupted from my iPad that I had never heard before! I opened it up in a panic only to discover a message that “Your scheduled ‘My Town’ scene is about to start now”! So, I guess I would add that iIt would be great to be able to see a list of set alarms/start times and GPS triggers!