Working with kids with communication disorders in schools

According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 1 in 12 American children aged 3-17 has a speech, language, communication or hearing disorder. At least 1 in 6 individuals will develop a communication disorder in their lifetime.

Most communication disorders are first presented in schools, but unfortunately, teachers are often not equipped to diagnose or teach a child with a communication disorder. Schools can benefit from the services of a speech-language pathologist.

Speech language pathologists have specific education and training in communication sciences and disorders, so they’re uniquely prepared to serve students with communication issues and better assist them in schools.

How do speech disorders affect learning?

Children with communication disorders generally have difficulty communicating with others. Communication disorders can vary from not understanding or making speech sounds, struggling with the order of words in a sentence, inability to use the right choice of words, or failure to structure a sentence properly. Communication disorders can adversely affect learning, social behavior, and quality of life. Therefore, the earlier the communication disorder is recognized and treated, the better the outcome.

Each child may present with different symptoms. But irrespective of the type of communication disorder, children with speech, language, and hearing disorders are at a higher risk of poor academic performance. They may:

  • Not speak at all
  • Have a limited vocabulary which hampers learning
  • Have difficulty naming objects or grasping simple orders
  • Not fully hear lessons or misunderstand assignments.
  • Have poor reading skills.
  • Have limited participation in the classroom.
  • Have difficulty understanding words or making new words
  • Older children may not be able to express abstract ideas.
  • Have low self-esteem (lack of confidence to speak in front of the class or interact with classmates).
  • Struggle to express themselves.
  • Act out or try to avoid going to school.

How can speech-language pathologists support schools?

The evaluation of a child with a communication disorder usually involves the following:

  • Psychological and cognitive testing
  • Psychometric testing to assess the child’s ability to reason, think and react to different life scenarios.
  • Asking open-ended questions relevant to age
  • Using a formal and informal checklist
  • Using tools to screen for communication disorders
  • Observing the child in their natural environment with the parent

Speech-language pathologists can support schools by supporting the following activities:

  • Help schools create special education classes. Often, kids with learning disabilities are placed in a special education class. It can, however, be difficult to teach children with multiple disorders in one classroom. A speech-language expert can help the school structure the classroom and lessons to meet the needs of every child as they have the necessary expertise and the knowledge to organize and schedule such activities.
  • Train teachers. Help teachers recognize the different types of speech and language disorders, e.g. some speech disorders result from autism, weak oral muscles, or a swallowing disorder. Speech-language pathologists can train teachers to identify each type and to use the best strategies and techniques to teach a child with a specific type of speech or speech hearing disorder.
  • Dispel the stigma around special education. Special education classes have a stigma attached to them, and the kids may feel embarrassed to be in the “special needs” class. To remove the stigma, the teacher/speech-language specialist may do the following:
  • Host awareness and education workshops.
  • Enlist assistance from advocates of mental health from the community
  • Enlist recovered people with speech and/or mental health issues to speak to the class
  • Start social media campaigns to increase awareness both in and out of the school
  • Engage and involve parents and families to improve the child’s support system.
  • Help kids with speech disorders. The speech-language pathologist can work directly with the child to help them manage and improve the disorder. This may require multiple sessions spaced over a few weeks or even months
  • Introduce tools and technology. Today, several digital apps and assistive technology can greatly assist students in understanding lessons, communicating, and improving their academic performance.
  • Support parents. Equip parents with skills and tools to work with their children at home. They can also advise and refer for any additional therapy or medical treatment, if needed, e.g. a doctor specializing in fixing cleft palate or inserting a hearing implant.

The treatment of a communication disorder depends on the child’s age, the severity of symptoms, and overall health. In essence, the speech-language pathologist will improve the child’s communication skills. This is often done as a team that consists of the therapist, teacher, parent, and/or mental health counselor. The treatment may be done in a group or one-on-one. In severe cases, the treatment is undertaken in special classes designed to obtain the maximum benefit in the child.

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