In the last year, the coronavirus pandemic transformed the way teachers taught and students learned. Those with cognitive, communication, physical, social, or emotional developmental delays had to learn in an entirely new setting. What’s more, in-person therapies were swapped out for remote learning, disrupting education for the 1 million children who receive school-based treatment for speech and language impairments in the U.S.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), early intervention was designed to be family-centered and provided in natural environments; however, this didn’t align with the constraints of a global pandemic. Seeing a speech-language pathologist’s mouth and facial expressions is key to delivering speech-language pathology services, particularly during a child’s first three years of life, which is a critical period of brain development. Without access to these therapeutic methods, kids with disabilities are at a greater risk of falling behind or regressing educationally compared to other students. Fortunately, the pandemic forced the telehealth industry to uncover new ways for students, parents, and caregivers to access the care they needed. Below is a look at the different ways that COVID-19 has impacted the field of speech-language pathology.
How Technology Can Enhance Speech Services
While education systems across the country have begun to return to in-person education services, there have been many advances in SLP tools and processes that were developed during the pandemic that still provide benefits today.
Speech-language pathologists may be able to continue to incorporate some of the lessons that they’ve learned, and the technologies they leveraged, even after a “return to normal.” In fact, these technologies can bring some benefits of their own:
It’s hard to miss an appointment when you don’t have to leave the house, and you can sign on moments before. Therapy can be done from virtually anywhere, eliminating commutes and decreasing the chances of missing an appointment. Convenience keeps both the speech-language pathologist and student on track for a consistent schedule benefiting the overall education plan.
Susan Fine, MA, CCC-SLP, Director of Clinical Education at the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northeastern University, agrees that convenience has had a significant impact on some students.
“There have been some populations that have received support that they would not have received pre-COVID.”
“I’ve heard from colleagues in the field that they are seeing progress with their young clients, that they didn’t see as much in person, because the child’s at home in a familiar place with familiar people,” Fine says. “And so, we’ve seen some significant growth for the medically fragile population we serve; it’s much more comfortable for them. It’s much easier to receive services on a telehealth platform.”
With speech-language services provided virtually and at home, many parents had direct sightlines into how speech-language pathologists were working with their children. Parents had a new outlook, and instructors had a new way to engage with the families of the individuals they work with.
Even with restrictions, professionals throughout the field of speech-language pathology worked through those limitations to educate students.
“This past year has shown us that we can be hugely successful in a telehealth model, which has been so interesting to learn about,” Fine says. “Telehealth has always been a part of our field, but it’s never been the predominant art.”
Access to children’s therapies increased the likelihood of parent or caregiver involvement. When we’re learning something new or being challenged in a new way, we must practice. The more a child’s family is involved, the more likely they are to implement strategies into their everyday routines and activities, thus positively impacting progress.
Lorraine Book, associate clinical professor and chair of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northeastern University, explains, “There have been some populations that have received support that they would not have received pre-COVID.”
A New Service Delivery Model for Speech Pathologists
Changes within the field and a push for telehealth have revealed a demand for speech-language pathologists as virtual access grows. Job opportunities in speech-language pathology are expected to grow by 25 percent by 2029, faster than the average for all occupations, according to ASHA.
It’s an exciting time for speech therapists and while there are many benefits to students, more carry over for educators, changing today’s delivery of speech-language therapy.
- Access to more students: Virtual therapy can be done from any location giving therapists expanded access to reach a whole new pool of students, especially hard-to-reach areas that may not have many options for speech-language services.
- Flexible work schedule: With virtual care added into the mix and the opportunity to reach or work with more individuals, this gives therapists the leverage to control their work schedules.
- Work-life balance: A flexible work schedule supports a healthy work-life balance.
- Cancel your commute: Give more time back to your mornings and evenings with no commute in either direction.
- Proving adaptability: This is a crucial opportunity for speech-language pathologists to prove that they can adapt during this fast-paced period of change and new norms.
In addition, there has been ongoing community support throughout the field while professionals continue to evolve with these changes.
“The field of speech-language pathology is an amazing community, and I think the pandemic really highlighted that,” Fine says. “As a field, within different communities, everyone came together to help everyone out, whether you were in an academic teaching environment, on the front lines in a hospital, or in a school when classes went remote. The stories I’ve heard of great community and camaraderie, I think as a field is something that sort of goes along with that empathetic nature that is essential to our work.”
A Continuously Evolving Field
Changes continue to emerge, as many cognitive-linguistic, voice, and swallowing issues resulted from the pandemic, particularly for patients who had to be intubated or placed in an ICU. Book adds, “Research is just exploring the long haulers in terms of what support they’re going to need for speech and ongoing swallowing and likely cognitive issues, as well.”
At Northeastern University, academic and clinical faculty prepare future speech-language pathologists for the rigors of clinical practice in educational and health care settings. Learn more about our commitment to preparing speech-language pathologists with the skills needed for a lifetime of professional achievement and social contribution.
Interested in becoming a speech-language pathologist? Learn more about the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northeastern University.