How do administrators and teachers perceive language disabilities?

Dec 9, 2019 by

How do administrators and teachers perceive language disabilities?

It has been quite awhile since I posted anything. I apologize for that.  No real excuses, except that writing a blog is a job in itself.  Plus I think I have been a little disillusioned with the field.  However, I haven’t been sitting around feeling sorry for my situation.  After 30+ years in schools I’ve made a positive change.  I’m still running my own small private practice and it has been going well.  I take on a few private clients and a school contract here and there.  It has actually worked out well and I’ve learned a lot working as a consultant in a variety of settings with a variety of teams.

The other day I needed another half credit hour to renew my license.  I found a one-credit course through Northern Speech Services called Perceptions of Children in Speech Therapy-What the SLP needs to know, presented by Rhonda Wojcicki, MS. CCC-SLP.  Initially from the title, I thought it was going to be about the perceptions of the students who have to attend therapy but it was even better.  It was about how administrators/teachers perceive students with speech and language disabilities.  Which as you might know ties in with the information in my book The School Speech Therapist-An Administrator’s Guide to understanding the role of the SLP in Schools along with strategies to aid staffing, workload management and student success

After this short well researched on line course I got to thinking.  I’ve always known that most administrators have no idea about students and their disabilities.  I’ve also know that most administrators have no clue about the Speech Language Pathologist role in evaluating and treating students with language disabilities, along with all the duties that come with that.  My book published 2015 was written and published specifically for administrators regarding the role of the Speech Language Pathologist in schools.  My book on touches on the types of students we service and their disabilities but it was more about what SLPs do in schools.  This course made me realize that we might have to take things a step back, focusing more on educating administrators/teachers around language disabilities before focusing on what the SLP needs to manage their workload.

It was wonderful to listen to a course that basically drew the same conclusion I have over the years, that most administrators and teachers have little understanding how language disabilities (and disabilities in general) impact learning and life.  My own observations tell me they also have difficulty understanding how proper support and therapy can help students with disabilities.  If this was understood SLPs would not have such high caseloads, specific time would be built in for therapy, co-teaching models would be better, younger students would receive therapy more often, higher order language disabilities would be a priority and the list could go on and on.

Basically if administrators/teachers had a better understanding of language disabilities, child development and success with appropriate interventions, SLPs would not be spread so thin in schools.  Our contributions in meetings would hold more weight, students would receive therapy more often and we would be consulted on a regular basis.

Several years back when Response to Intervention (RTI) was becoming a thing, I worked in a school that tried to raise the level of understanding of language disabilities with teachers.  This was actually a good thing but it wasn’t done well and we had difficulty getting teacher buy in.  There were some a-ha moments for the teachers I worked with at the middle school level but they were few and far between.  Needless to say principals and administrators were not part of this training.

Lack of understanding of speech and language disabilities is nothing new but in the past our knowledge and role was more respected. Over the years the role of the SLP in schools has become more technical but we forgot to tell people that.  When I first started working my caseload primarily consisted of students working on grammar and articulation, with a much smaller overall workload.  Now a public school caseload will consist of students with mild to severe language needs covering the whole spectrum of language/learning disabilities. Students use to be sent out for more in depth testing to hospitals or clinics.  Now we do it all.  I remember that the hospital/clinic testing always held more weight in meetings even if the SLP was the only one at the table who really understood the findings.  It was a good bargaining chip for students to receive increased speech and language services. 

Now we do the same testing and yet often the team does not validate our findings.  In some cases we are not even allowed to spend the needed time to present our findings and explain things to the parents.  When we do get a chance to explain speech and language findings, rarely is anyone taking a note, commenting or asking a question. I often wonder if any of the accommodations or goals are read, much less followed or addressed in the classroom.  In years past, SLPs could at least count on the special education teacher or school psychologist having some understanding of language disabilities but that has seemed to wane.

Why do administrators, teachers and other team members have such a poor understanding of why/how underlying language disabilities impact learning?  Even if it wasn’t part of their initial training, wouldn’t years of sitting in IEP meetings, teaching children at all levels and talking with the SLP increase their levels of understanding to the point where they could say “I think that student has some sort of underlying language disability”.  For a lot of teachers and administrators it hasn’t.  I have several thoughts on why this has happened.

  • Teachers have a lot on their plate with little support
  • You can’t easily “see” language disabilities 
  • Teacher training even in this day and age, years after integration was the norm, still does not prepare teachers for the disabilities they may encounter in their classrooms
  • Many years ago administrators were told they had to immediately integrate special education students with little understanding of disabilities, little to no training and no viable plan.  Many Administrators still see integration as a blanket policy without considering individual needs or teacher’s ability to do this successfully.   
  • If a teacher suspects a disability they basically have to jump through hoops, take copious data and try several accommodations (often without guidance) before referring a student through the RTI process.  Once in the RTI process it is often a lot of work for the teachers. Not to mention precious time where the student could be receiving more appropriate services is lost and the child continues to fail.  I have known teachers to avoid the RTI process by telling parents to directly request an evaluation.  This was evident at one particular school when several evaluation requests came across my desk after the first parent-teacher conference several years in a row.
  • In the past administrators have often come up through the ranks and would have a lot of experience actually working with students.  Today a lot of administrators go right into administration without any experience working with regular or special education students.
  • Administrators running special education programs either as the head of the department or as team managers are not always required to have any special education experience.  My observation is that team meetings are run very differently depending on the level of special education experience/understanding of the team leader. 
  • Schools offer very few continuing education opportunities having anything to do with language development.  They have experts in the schools so why don’t they use them.
  • Special and regular education teachers are expected to focus on curriculum standards and passing that all-important standardized test.  They have little to no understanding of the gaps that language/learning disabled students have.  A very good example of this is when it comes to writing (again which is important to pass that standardized test).  If a language disabled student is unable to organize language, generate grammatically decent sentences and use a rich vocabulary, what makes them think they will be able to do it in writing.  There is clearly a gap or disconnection, which others at the IEP table often won’t acknowledge.  Their training tells them a template will solve all the problems, SLPs know it won’t.
  • Lack of time to do things properly is a huge issue for everyone in schools.  Since there is a general lack of understanding of disabilities especially with administrators, there is usually never enough time built into the schedule to do what has to be done.  Almost every IEP has a consult piece, yet time is not built in to meet with teachers and most consulting is done when passing through the hallway.
  • Schools do not use enough Universal Supports to aid learning for all.   
  • The typical 2×30/week for therapy might fit the school schedule but does it fit the child’s needs?  Because of this lack of flexibility imposed by the school schedule this perhaps demonstrates that therapies in general are not perceived as important.
  • Speech and language issues are often seen as medical needs not educational needs.  
  • Administrators don’t know what they don’t know.  In over 30 years working in schools I’ve never once been asked what I need to manage the workload or what the students need to be successful.  It’s my impression that teachers are rarely asked either.  Given the structure and culture of most schools, school personnel are often afraid to speak up on such issues.

So what can be done at this point to raise the awareness and understanding of language disabilities and the impact on learning?  I wish I had the answer.  Administrators influence budgets and policies that directly impact the quality of programs and services thus impacting the success of students.  For them not to understand the varied learning style of a good chunk of their students is not good.  My experience is that administrators will support a new fad program with more enthusiasm than they will support direct services for language-disabled students. If the underlying cause is that they do not understand language disabilities or perceive language disabilities separate from learning, then clearly more education is required. Which was one of the basic conclusions taken from the course.  

The answer seems simple, provide administrators and teachers ongoing education around awareness and understanding of language disabilities and their impact on learning.  After over 30 years working in schools, I just can’t see that happening until someone with a lot more clout than the lowly single SLP working in a school starts pointing it out.  Creating workshops might be a good start but still you would have to get buy in.  

I enjoyed listening to Perception of Children in Speech Therapy-What the SLP needs to know.  It gave me a lot to think about.  I’d like to see a similar conference marketed toward administration and teachers.  I will be suggesting it to the author.

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