South Orangetown Central School District

As a member of our District’s Related Services Team, William O. Schaefer Elementary School Speech-Language Pathologist Melissa Jacob, CCC-SLP, TSSLD assesses, diagnoses and treats speech, language, social communication and cognitive-communication disorders in our District’s youngest students.

How did you prepare yourselves and/or your students for distance learning?

Jacob: “I evaluated the needs of all my students and worked with their families to create a family-centered plan that would ensure the most success and help them feel connected to school and learning. Collaboration with our occupational therapist, psychologists, learning consultant and classroom teachers was also a huge part of the preparation as we worked to transition our resources and materials to an online-friendly format. To prepare students, I made distance learning social stories explaining what school and therapy will look like. We explored how this difference might make us feel, accepted that it’s okay to make mistakes or feel unsure about distance learning, and talked through strategies to use when we feel overwhelmed. I also worked with each student to make a personalized speech/language therapy charter that explored how they wanted to feel in therapy and ways to achieve that.”

What, if any, are some of the unique challenges you’ve encountered with distance learning so far?

Jacob: “Continuing to develop social skills essential to communication and fostering connections and community has been a challenge. This poses an even greater challenge for families without access to technology and who are struggling to meet basic needs. We had to step back and come up with creative and realistic solutions to encourage language development. Virtual playdates, scavenger hunts, Simon Says, charades, and acting out ‘movies’ have been helpful, low-stress ways to infuse the home environment with language. Holding group sessions have also been a way for students to interact in a smaller, more easily accessible setting. Group sessions are structured in a way so that students can spend time greeting each other, engaging in conversation and working together to problem-solve during activities.”

What does speech therapy look like in a remote environment?

Jacob: “It looks very similar to in-person sessions but with some surprisingly wonderful differences. I’m able to use household objects that are accessible to students instead of worksheets or other materials that aren’t as readily available in the home. I’ve done my best to convert all my visuals onto an online friendly format–no printers needed! I use the screen-sharing and remote control options of Zoom in every session – I want students to be in charge of their activities and to feel as if they are actively striving towards their goals rather than being passive participants. Therapy has also changed because caregivers are participants in my sessions as well! Caregivers have been providing tactile cues when I can’t, providing positive reinforcement and modeling flexibility and persistence for all tasks.”

How are you partnering with families to support their children at home?

Jacob: “Families have been wonderful partners in distance learning. One advantage of teletherapy is that I am able to provide feedback and explanations in real time. Speech-language therapy is grounded in being client- and family-centered. Teletherapy engaged parents as collaborative partners during and outside of sessions, where we hope to see the generalization of skills. This collaboration and constant communication in the therapeutic process has been vital, especially as we approached annual reviews and made plans for next year. Families work to model and recast, they provide tactile cues for tongue/lip/jaw placement, help students make connections about stories to their own lives and act as tech support!”

What are key things that you’ve learned through this process so far? How, if at all, has it impacted your thinking about your own professional practice?

Jacob: “This experience has emphasized the fact that no man is an island. It takes a coordinated team effort to make teletherapy possible. I’ve also learned that telepractice isn’t ‘re-inventing’ therapy but that it’s all about changing my expectations of how a therapy session ‘should’ look. It’s still possible to use evidence-based methodologies, to use the same supports and to see student growth. Additionally, I have been privileged to witness how resilient our students and families are. My families have been extremely flexible about finding time in their hectic days for therapy. Students have been patient with me as we navigate Zoom and been persistent as they worked through difficult tasks. It has inspired me to do the same.”

Melissa Jacob