Few professions have been untouched by the rapid innovation and transformation of technology – and speech-language pathology is no exception.
When digital tools and technologies are used appropriately, and with moderation, they can improve speech therapy delivery, enhance learning experiences, and better incorporate families, caregivers, and teachers into a child’s speech therapy journey.
Let’s take a look at some of the technological advancements within speech-language pathology, and the benefits these can have on children, families, and speech therapists.
Today, approximately 8% of children between the ages of 3-17 have a disorder related to speech, language, voice, or swallowing, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. More than a million of these children receive speech therapy at school, with many more receiving interventions through both online and in-person speech therapy practices.
When children experience communication deficits, it can affect all aspects of their life: their classroom performance, ability to connect with loved ones, and socialization with peers and friends. When children cannot adequately express their needs, desires, and feelings, it can lead to behavioral issues and have detrimental effects on their mental health and social well-being.
Traditionally, therapist-client relationships were more likely to be restricted and siloed from parents, family members, teachers, and other care providers. While SLPs used their education and experience to treat the underlying speech and language issues, lack of collaboration with stakeholders could easily lead to missed treatment opportunities.
Today, the rise of collaborative technologies and HIPAA-compliant communication channels can make the promise of whole-person care a reality. Is a child stuttering more profusely when presenting in class? Did they use a new word or pronounce a new sound correctly at home? All of these data points can help guide a speech therapist’s treatment plan so they can provide more effective intervention. These open lines of communication can help keep everyone in the loop and up-to-date on a child’s progress and challenges.
While online speech therapy has rapidly accelerated in a time of social distancing and remote learning due to COVID-19, the trend towards teletherapy has been growing for many years. With teletherapy, speech therapists still provide the same effective face-to-face care – the only difference being that children interact with their therapist through a video screen as opposed to sitting across a table. There are many reasons why more families and therapists are choosing online speech therapy, and more schools are offering it.
● Effectiveness: A mountain of evidence, including two prominent studies conducted by Kent State University and the Ohio Department of Public Education, have shown that online speech therapy is just as effective as traditional, in-person care in helping children reach their communication goals. Both studies used student control groups and standardized tests to track childrens’ progress with each delivery method.
● Increased Parent/Caregiver Involvement: Similarly, more attention and clinical literature in recent years has highlighted the importance of having parents/caregivers be active participants in their child’s care. Learning speech-language skills and compensatory strategies requires continued practice at home, outside the speech therapy sessions. However, in traditional speech therapy settings, parents are often left in the dark. They may only see their child’s school-based speech therapist 1-2 times a year during their annual IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting. At a private clinic, they may only catch their therapist for a few minutes in the waiting room. With online speech therapy, parents generally have more flexibility to schedule speech therapy sessions during non-traditional hours that don’t interfere with their work schedules. This allows them to sit alongside their child during the sessions, learn techniques and activities first hand to reinforce skills at home, and build stronger relationships.
● Convenience: The added convenience of virtual speech therapy extends to both families and SLPs. The benefits for families are numerous; there’s less time spent commuting, more flexibility in scheduling appointments around work and school, greater selection of SLPs specialized to their child’s needs, and more accessibility for those living in rural areas. For families that choose a private speech therapy clinic, online speech therapy is also generally more affordable. Additionally, SLPs have more latitude in setting their own hours and working where they choose.
Changing Learning Habits
Watching children today navigate an iPad or phone app is pretty mind-blowing. They’re digital natives, having been raised in technology-rich environments that have made these skills almost second nature. As an effect of this digital immersion, children learn and process information differently than even a decade ago.
When used correctly and moderately, digital speech therapy tools used during sessions have the power to enhance the learning experience. They can increase childrens’ attention spans, engagement, willingness to participate, and the productivity of the sessions.
Best of all, there’s no shortage of interactive tools, There are fun language-building games that can be played via video chat, such as word searches or Bingo, a variety of digital backgrounds to provide visual intrigue and reinforce new lessons, remote whiteboard features to draw and narrative stories, YouTube videos to teach vocabulary and articulation through song and dance, and so much more.
Similarly, there are many engaging apps that children can use at home to reinforce lessons learned during the sessions. For example, the Articulation Station app can help children who struggle to pronounce certain sounds and letters, such as /s/ or /z/. The app Speech Blurbs helps children imitate sounds from “kid experts” who use fun face filters to keep them entertained. And Splingo uses a reward-based system and animations to teach children a variety of speech and language skills, like pronouns and vocabulary.
While the proliferation of technology will continue to redefine speech-language pathology, the question isn’t whether it’s beneficial, but how to best harness it’s benefits. However, it’s important to remember that there’s no quick-fix solution or magic elixir when it comes to speech and language development. No device, app, or game can ever replace human interaction. In other words, these tools can help aid the teaching process, but they will never be able to replace it.
This is due to many reasons, the most salient of which is that children still require face-to-face interaction. They need feedback on how they’re doing, strategies for self-correction and improvement, motivation to continue practicing, and the evolving treatment plan of an experienced speech-language pathologist committed to helping them reach their communication goals.
As touched on earlier, technology also cannot replace the importance of a dedicated parent or caregiver who extends skill-building into their child’s everyday life. The vast majority of a child’s speech and language acquisition doesn’t happen during their speech therapy sessions or by using an app – it happens by listening and interacting with those around them (during playtime, at the park, trips to the grocery store, etc). Parents know their child better than anyone, and have unlimited opportunities to interact with their child throughout their daily lives. These day-to-day scenarios will continue to be the most ideal moments to practice and reinforce skills necessary to help children reach their milestones and become a confident communicator.