Speech therapy moves online

Online speech therapy gives some schools a much-needed solution.

Offering speech therapy to students can be a challenge for school districts: Speech therapists are in short supply; it can be expensive to hire a speech therapist, particularly if a district uses a contractor who must drive from school to school and charges for driving time; and rural schools might have a hard time finding a speech therapist in their area, while urban schools might struggle with retaining speech therapists.

Connections Academy, a provider of nationally certified K-12 online curriculum, is addressing these problems by offering an online speech therapy option for school districts. The program, beginning in the 2011-12 school year, will let students—equipped with a computer with high-speed internet access, along with a webcam and headset—interact online with state and nationally certified speech therapists via web conferencing software.

The conferencing software, Live Lesson, lets the therapist and child work together in real time online. The program also uses a variety of other tools. Traditional worksheets are available from a number of publishers in PDF form for the student and therapist to complete together.

“There’s also a whiteboard program, which allows for writing and drawing together,” said Robyn Guerrasio, speech services program manager for Connections Academy. “And the internet is very rich with educational activities that can be turned into activities for speech therapy.”

While the program being offered next school year is new to brick-and-mortar school districts, Connections Academy has offered speech therapy to many of its online public schools for the last two years.

“During that time, we’ve gathered a long list of sites appropriate for teaching kids, from the simply educational to those created specifically for speech therapy,” Guerrasio said. Connections Academy’s speech therapy program also uses proprietary tools, such as Connect-a-Majig, a phonics tool that offers fun activities around spelling and phonics for younger students.

Feedback from schools and participating students has been very positive for a variety of reasons. “Kids love it,” said Guerrasio. “They think computers are cool.”

Parents have found the online speech therapy program useful as well, because it invites parental involvement.

“Traditionally, when kids get therapy at school, the parent doesn’t see the therapy. If they do it at home, the parent can be involved, the parent and the therapist can interact directly. The therapist can remind the parent, ‘Make sure you work with him on the S sound tonight,’” explained Guerrasio.

But the speech therapy sessions don’t have to take place at home. At school districts that are interested in signing on for the online speech therapy program, students can use a computer lab or other area in the school for the speech therapy sessions.

This is another benefit to taking speech therapy online, said Guerrasio: “Whether a student is in a computer lab at school or at home, they’re in their natural environment rather than the sterile environment of a clinic room.” This enhances learning, she added.

All of the Connections Academy speech therapists are certified in any state in which they serve, as well as by the American Speech Hearing Association. Connections Academy will work with districts on a case-by-case basis to determine the needs of the district and its individual students. Students typically see a therapist once a week for an hour, but some—perhaps those with shorter attention spans—do better with a twice-a-week, 30-minute schedule. Others, including those who are closer to their goals and need less help, might see a therapist every other week.

Though Connections Academy is still looking at its pricing model, payment will be on a contract basis, depending on the services provided.

Presence TeleCare also offers online speech therapy for children. Typically, the only hardware needed for each Presence TeleCare station are webcams and headsets, at a cost of $90 to $120 per station. The company recommends certain equipment, but schools are free to purchase other models.

Other than equipment, the platform requires a broadband connection and internet browser.

Presence TeleCare recruits speech and language pathologists (SLPs), trains them to work online, and provides ongoing support. The total cost of the program is based on the amount of time a school uses the program.

The program integrates with a child’s classroom curriculum and is designed to promote active collaboration between Presence TeleCare’s SLP and the child’s classroom teacher.

Presence TeleCare SLPs also engage students in typical activities to produce certain sounds, such as blowing through a straw. If the child is not able to accomplish the task, a classroom paraprofessional (required by Presence TeleCare to be present for a child’s sessions) steps in to help if needed.

The web platform offers multipoint access so that groups of children can learn together.

SLPs input data during a speech therapy session with a child, and the data are stored automatically in a child’s file and available to school administrators, parents, and teachers.

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