On the Brink of Kindergarten: Placement of Bilingual Students

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As a preschool-based speech-language pathologist in New York City, I get a number of bilingual children on my caseload every year. Many of them are sequential bilingual learners, with English being their second language (L2). It is also not uncommon for these sequential bilinguals to first begin to acquire their L2 here at the preschool. Speech-language and overall cognitive functioning of these children varies greatly, often a function of how much exposure to English they had to prior to preschool. During the Turning Five meetings, these students’ overall speech-language progress becomes especially salient.

At these meetings, I find that for some of our bilingual students, particularly the sequential bilinguals, the kindergarten setting recommended by the evaluation team tends to be smaller (for example, a classroom size of 12). This type of educational environment is often recommended for children with severe delays and disorders such as autism spectrum disorders, learning disability and childhood apraxia of speech.

During one of these meetings, a graduating student I will call Andy was described as extremely slow to progress and retain information. All team members agreed he requires a lot of support to comprehend basic in-context commands in therapy sessions and the classroom, and presents with minimal use of words. However, we also know that he is from a home where the primary language is not English. In addition, the student only joined the program at the age of 4, not at 3, which would probably have made a big difference. The speech-language evaluation in the child’s file indicates a severe delay in English (I bet I would be severely delayed in a language to which I had minimal or no exposure) but no mention of the skills present in L1. Communication with the family has been limited due to a language barrier.

There are many bilingual children in the New York City school system that follow Andy’s path. Hence, it should always be alarming to us, the educators, when a bilingual student in whom L1 is not English but there are no known global delays transitions into a kindergarten setting of 12. Additionally, a kindergarten special education classroom includes students with a variety of diagnoses and behaviors, with the more severely impaired students not providing a model for appropriate social skills and verbal communication.

So why do these students continue to get placed into smaller, more restrictive educational settings? Most obviously because of concern that they will not be able to function in a larger setting. But what could we be doing instead? Each child’s case would need to be studied individually. Specifically, we would need to review all the relevant cultural and linguistic background information starting at birth, such as the amount of L1 and L2 exposure in and out of home, history of speech- language delays, and the level of education in the family, to name a few. Other variables to consider are: 1) the amount of time that the bilingual student has spent in an all-English formal academic setting, 2) the presence of “problem” behaviors that significantly maintain the overall delays and reduce time the student is actually learning, and 3) the lack of sufficient, if any, L1 support (Spanish/ Bengali/Arabic) received in the school setting, including from an assigned SLP.

The latter one is of particular interest to me, as I am a bilingually certified English/Russian speech-language pathologist. However, I have little practical language skill to offer to my Arabic-, Spanish-, Bengali- or Albanian-speaking students. In such cases we, for the lack of a better word, “exercise,” our nonverbal communication skills and teach English as a second language.

Sure, an ongoing collaboration and a close relationship with the child’s family can potentially shed light on the speech-language and cognitive skills of the student. However, my experience has been that, due to communication barriers, the family yields little information that can guide me. Therefore, in most cases, I cannot reliably pinpoint speech-language deficits present in languages other than English or Russian.

This is an ongoing issue of inappropriate services to and settings for our bilingual special education students. Research is full of examples of typically developing bilingual students taking longer to learn and acquire L2 skills. This is even more consequential for children with special needs, whose speech- language and/or cognition is already delayed. Subtractive bilingualism is the term Fred Genesee and colleagues use in their book “Dual Language Development and Disorders” (2004) to describe this language-learning dilemma and the danger of “switching” our culturally diverse students to English only. According to the literature, the problem with monolingual (English-only) placements is that many of our already delayed bilingual children can’t “catch up” to their monolingual peers. Therefore, the all-English classroom setting of 12 carries a rather pessimistic long-term implication for overall academic success.

But what if every bilingual child with special needs received enough L1 support? Would that change the outcome? What if we had enough bilingual certified SLPs representing a variety of cultures and languages to help our culturally diverse students? Would the bilingual children still be placed into restrictive settings with no L1 support and with communicative interactions that offer few appropriate models? I believe that if these students received speech-language services in both the L1 and L2, they would make significantly more progress and at a much higher rate.

It would certainly further expedite their progress and make the instruction more holistic and ethical. Of course, today, more than ever, we have major problems with budget cuts that affect the number and the size of special education classrooms available to us, as well as the amount and the type of services we can offer. In fact, in recent years it has become much more difficult to qualify a child for related services even in the presence of notable deficits. Greater still is the cost of not delivering appropriate and culturally/linguistically ethical services to our bilingual children. We might be in far greater need of special education services years down the line when trying to remediate difficulties that were further compromised due to lack of appropriate language support. Just something to think about!

Natalie Romanchukevich, MS, CCC-SLP, is a bilingual Russian speech-language pathologist at the Children’s Center for Early Learning in New York City. This post is adapted from a guest post Natalie Romanchukevich wrote for Tatyana Elleseff’s blog Smart Speech Therapy. Natalie can be reached at natalieslp@gmail.com.