Coaching Parents to Foster Their Child’s Expressive Language Skills

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I recently had the opportunity to provide tele-speech-language services to a toddler with autism spectrum disorder. I knew it would be difficult to have him sit in front of a computer for long periods, so I decided that I would employ a “parent coaching” approach, empowering his parents to more effectively help their son.

I started by having the parents videotape their daily interactions with him, which revealed that they were aware of their son’s difficulties and in-tune with his communication needs. However, even though this little boy appeared quite bright, it was difficult to distinguish when he was answering a question from what he had learned, or if it was a rote response. The parents had specific goals they wanted their son to achieve, so how was I going to help them?

I provided the boy’s parents with information about expressive language development and explained that their expectations appeared to be beyond this child’s current capabilities (determined by the boy’s age, as well as his disability). Next I took the language and vocabulary skills the parents wanted their son to learn—such as labeling an apple—and broke them out into smaller steps. These are the types of activities I suggest parents use to help a child grasp a language concept:

  • Present the child with several apples, preferably of different colors.
  • Talk about the outside of the apples: color, shape, size, smell, taste and texture.
  • Cut open the apples (“What do you see?”) , and eat some of each, talking about how it sounds and tastes as you bite into each piece.
  • Cut an apple in half horizontally and use washable tempera paints to make apple prints on paper using the different colors apples can be.
  • Find a simple recipe to make applesauce or another food from apples.
  • Eat apple slices with peanut butter and talk about how it tastes, and about the messiness and stickiness.
  • Make a pretend apple out of PlayDoh.
  • Compare the “fake” apple with the real one, explaining that you can eat a “real” apple but not the “pretend.” This models analytical thinking.
  • Bring in another fruit, such as an orange, and do the same steps.
  • Try making and drinking homemade orange juice.
  • Compare an apple to an orange.
  • Show video clips of people picking apples and oranges, showing how both grow on a tree.
  • Add bananas, doing the first seven steps (tastes great with peanut butter).
  • Roll the items across the floor and talk about how they roll. Compare.
  • Use this method to teach about common fruits you either purchase or see in the market.

Of course, just relating these steps to parents isn’t enough, because they have a tendency to take over for their child if they see the child struggling. For example, it’s tempting for them to place the child’s hands on the paper to make the apple prints, which removes the child from the process and leads to a loss of interest. To help parents avoid this, I explain that learning involves making mistakes. Other suggestions I provide include:

  • When speaking to your child, keep your sentences simple and to the point (approximately three to four words per utterance: “Are you hungry?” versus “Are you ready to go have some sandwiches for lunch?” Expanding utterances will come along a bit later!
  • Speak slowly because it may take the child additional time to process the information.
  • Do not require the child to look you in the eye when you are speaking to him. A glance at your face, especially at this age, should suffice. Toddlers are busy-bodies and need to keep moving and exploring.
  • If you ask a child a comprehension question, he or she may provide a quick or rote answer to be able to do what he wants to do.
  • Allow time to just play with your child. Let the child direct the play. Have a few toys out to choose from and follow his or her lead.
  • Make simple remarks about what is going on, but avoid asking questions to probe for an answer: “What color is your truck? How about that car? What is this part of the car called?” This is play time, not teaching time.
  • Model out loud how to think about items: “You have a big, blue truck! Wow! Mine is small. I have a small, yellow truck. “
  • Model out loud how to problem-solve (over-and-over-and-over again): “Oops! The wheel came off my truck. Hmmm. How can I fix it? {looking over the whole truck while thinking….} If I get something to help the wheel stay on, I should be able to fix it. If I use glue, the wheel may not spin.”
  • Allow some “quiet” play time as well and let your child do the talking (or not if he so chooses). This is a great opportunity to just sit and listen to what your child is saying (to you and/or the toys).

I have parents send me some YouTube video of them performing some of these activities with their child. In subsequent sessions, we discuss what works well (and not so well) with the child, and I share more activity ideas and literature with them.

Tracy Sippl, MS, CCC-SLP, is a Seymour, Wisc.-based speech-language pathologist and tele-therapist with Cumberland Therapy Services. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 18, Telepractice. This post was adapted from a post on the Cumberland Therapy blog,  Right Therapy–Right Results–Right Now.

How To Become a Telepractitioner—Without Going Private

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Working in schools for 23 years was very rewarding for me, but in 2012, I found myself looking for a different avenue for delivering speech-language pathology services. Simply, I was ready for a change.

Therapy sessions seemed to have become more condensed, requiring me to work with groups rather than specific students, which was not always beneficial for them. Incorporating technology into therapy sessions seemed to help my students maintain focus, motivating them to work. Whether I used technology to help students practice articulation drills, writing organization or social skills, they enjoyed it.

Could I find a job opportunity that would allow me to bring together my interests in working from home and using technology to provide speech-language services? The answer seemed to be “telepractice,” also known as “teletherapy.”

I knew leaving my position in the schools would be a bit intimidating. Questions began swirling through my mind: What were the “pros” and the “cons” of leaving my current position? Would it be worth leaving the schools to work from home? Did I want to provide treatment as an employee of a company or as a private provider?

I’ve always wanted to work from home; being able to transport my children to and from school and spending time with them afterward was a major motivator. I’ve also longed for scheduling flexibility that working from home would allow (the ability to throw in a load of laundry between sessions or plan in the evening without needing to drive back to work). But would I miss the staff camaraderie? What about students’ hugs? Would I feel isolated? Since I began providing telepractice treatment, the answer to each of these potential drawbacks has been “no.” To me, the “pros” have far outweighed the “cons.”

I researched telepractice some more on the ASHA website, which reviews studies pointing to teletherapy’s efficacy, and joined ASHA Special Interest Group 18, Telepractice. I later attended a teletherapy training in Maine that tasks that would ordinarily take 60 minutes to complete when providing “onsite” speech/language therapy could be accomplished during approximately 35 minutes of teletherapy!

Next, I considered providing teletherapy as a private practitioner, but I balked at the additional marketing and operational work that would require, even though I knew it would mean being my own boss and making my own schedule.

After careful consideration, I decided to accept an offer to become a teletherapist with a company I knew delivered quality training and treatment. At my company’s direction, I attended American Telemedicine Association-accredited training provided by Michael Towey.

Regarding equipment, I recommend using:

• A laptop with at least a 15” screen and built-in webcam (or you can use an external webcam).
• A headset with attached microphone or external speakers with an external microphone (I prefer a headset because the microphone is always close to the students’ mouths).
• A document camera for use during therapy. You can find most of this equipment on Amazon.

The software I use is a HIPPA-compliant, video-conferencing platform provided by my employer. It is important to consider security and compliance when selecting a Web-conferencing platform (Skype, for instance, is not compliant). Some telepractice companies require that you purchase your own equipment as well as their telepractice software. Be sure to consider that in your research.

For materials, I have found different online resources to draw from: SLP blogs (such as ChapelHillSnippets.com), eNewsletters, and ASHAsphere. I often use my own materials via a document camera. Once I received the necessary equipment and became comfortable with it, I worked on reviewing each student’s IEP, listing goals/objectives for each, and documenting IEP/re-evaluation due dates. Training a paraprofessional was the next step because I needed someone to: chaperone students coming to and leaving from therapy, be a behavior manager as needed, serve as a technology problem-solver, help as a student-response “confirmer,” and be a “skill-carryover” assistant when possible.

Connecting with students via teletherapy has a different “feel” when compared to onsite therapy. While working in the schools, students would draw pictures for me, hug me, and stop in my speech room to see how my day was going. Obviously hugs aren’t available over the Internet, but I have found that there are other ways to connect with students.

Frequently, when students first join the session, their faces light up, and I’ll hear, “Good morning, Mrs. Sippl! What are we doing today?” If my students earn a few minutes of free-choice time at the end of a therapy session, frequently they will ask to draw or color online. Once they’re done, they’ll explain that the drawing is for me and that I need to print it out to hang on my wall. As you can see, the “connection” with students is not lost. It is just different.

Based on my own telepractice experiences, my sense is that students are able to accomplish more in less time compared with face-to-face therapy. Teletherapy has its own rewards, and students find ways to show you how important you are to them. Once, as I was working with a Kindergarten student, she looked at me and exclaimed, “Hi, Mrs. Sippl! I’m so excited to see you today! I love you!”

Tracy Sippl, MS, CCC-SLP, is a Seymour, Wis.-based speech-language pathologist and tele-therapist with Cumberland Therapy Services. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 18, Telepractice.