Schools today are facing a harsh reality: there is a chronic shortage of qualified speech-language pathologists (SLPs). As an SLP and clinical director who has worked with school districts across the country, I’ve watched this problem grow over the years. This, compounded with large amounts of paperwork and high caseloads, makes it difficult for SLPs to manage their workload, contributing to many students not getting the services they need.
Despite long-term efforts made by school administrators to help students and SLPs surmount service barriers, it’s clear that in-school speech-language therapy initiatives could still use a boost.
Here are three things administrators can do to improve student access to speech-language therapy.
Support ongoing SLP training
While the scope of practice for school-based SLPs is technically quite broad, SLPs may be assigned students who require highly-specialized therapeutic approaches. However, districts often don’t have the bandwidth or budget for the additional training required.
For instance, based on a 2021 ASHA report, out of 193,199 SLP members, only 8.2 percent self-identified as multilingual. Of those, 42 percent, or 6,653, reported working in school-based settings. Although this may appear to be a large number, school districts continually identify bilingual speech-language services as a chronic shortage. Furthermore, if a school district does not have access to a bilingual or multilingual SLP, or to an SLP trained to evaluate and provide treatment for culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) populations, these children can potentially be misidentified for speech-language services.
Subsequently, we’ve seen CLD students not receive speech-language interventions at all, or the interventions were not appropriately individualized or as effective. The good news is strategic funding and training opportunities can help onsite SLPs better support CLD populations, as well as other students with varying disabilities and goal areas. And, SLPs are often the best source for ideas about how to best direct training funds to support the varying speech-language needs of students.
Consider remote evaluations and teletherapy services
After 30-plus years of shortages, educators are painfully aware that more SLPs are needed to meet the growing demand for school-based speech-language services. That’s where teletherapy comes in.
- Allow school district leaders to mitigate the shortage
- Meet legal requirements
- Expand the pool of qualified SLPs to whom students have access
- Help on-site SLPs achieve more manageable workloads
Implement a Workload-Based Staffing Model
In 2014, ASHA, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), and the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) released a position paper advocating for a workload-based approach to service provider staffing, as opposed to a traditional caseload-based method. However, only 12 percent of school-based SLPs in ASHA’s most recent survey report using this method.
A workload-based analysis incorporates student and setting factors, as well as the full scope of responsibilities for SLPs. The result supports clinical best practices, higher quality services for students, and a greater likelihood of SLP job satisfaction and retention. However, while SLPs can advocate for this model, it is up to district leaders to ensure it’s implemented.
While it can be challenging for education leaders to remove student learning barriers, those who take a multi-pronged approach can make progress. For students in need of speech-language therapy, and for the SLPs who provide it, accessibility is key: access to specialized training, access to supplemental SLPs through remote services, and access to a workload-based staffing model can make a difference.