Melanie Mendelson, M.A., CCC-SLP, attended Pennsylvania State University for undergraduate work from 2010–2013. For graduate school, she attended Long Island University Post and spent her clinical fellowship year working in Brooklyn, “commuting 2 hours a day in traffic.” From New York, she moved to Philadelphia where her fiance (now husband) was doing his residency for 3 years. They fell in love with Philadelphia. She currently lives in New York City with her husband and little dog Nittany (named after the Penn State mascot—Melanie and her husband met at Penn State). Melanie and her husband love to travel. They’re planning a postponed trip to Barcelona whenever travel opens up again. She calls herself “a big Penn State football fan” and says her Saturdays consist of cheering on the team, with a few weekend trips in-person up to the school whenever that is possible. Melanie started with PresenceLearning in August at the start of the 2020–2021 school year.
How did your practice change during the COVID-19 crisis? Did you transition to working in homes?
When I first made the transition to working with students in their homes last spring while I was still in Philadelphia and before joining the PresenceLearning Care Network, it was chaotic. We had a lot of challenges—childcare was a big issue. I had a lot of kids who just couldn’t show up to therapy. The kids were moved around. Internet access was a major issue. Maybe if they were with Grandma, they wouldn’t have wifi. One thing that was positive…I had been working in that school for 2 years, so I did have a good relationship with the families which helped bridge the gap. I gave my cell phone number out which normally I wouldn’t do but I felt like whatever it would take, we could do this because we were all in this together.
Now, with the PresenceLearning platform, it’s all around better. Most of my week now, my students are in their school building. I think this is happening across Vermont. Vermont’s situation is different with the pandemic since they’re more sparsely populated. I just added a few students I’ll be working with in their homes.
How have you worked through challenges you’ve encountered during this transition?
It is important now more than ever to stay connected with students and families. There are so many ways to do that—emails, phone calls, and video calls. I think clear and consistent communication is key to establishing close relationships with families. Even though this has been a big transition for all of our students, teletherapy has offered an unexpected consistency in a year full of uncertainties and big changes. My students enjoy knowing that they will continue to receive speech and language therapy, regardless of other factors. All of my students have become accustomed to the therapy room and platform tools quickly and they are extremely motivated to use it for therapy.
Building rapport and a personal connection with students is extremely important so it mirrors an ‘in person’ feel. For the first session and sometimes the second, I don’t even go for speech goals. I put the focus on getting to know each other. I make it very informal. With the PL platform, I make it about learning about what the therapy room is like—getting them used to it, really comfortable with it, learning all the really cool tools and tricks. For example, all they had to do was click on a stamp and make it really really big, and that was the best thing ever. That got kids just talking. I wanted to start with a relationship like we normally would have in person. And I feel like this strategy really has been successful. At times I’ll make the cameras bigger so that we just see each other and not the whiteboard, so it’s like I’m having a one-on-one conversation and we’re sitting across the table.
How have you been helping parents and caregivers who are now acting as the primary support person with their child?
I really try to actively listen to what the parents are telling me in our conversations. I offer suggestions of strategies, interventions, or next steps that are related to specific concerns mentioned by the parents and/or moments I have observed in video-interactions. Empathy is very important as well as understanding that the child’s progress is only one element in their complex and dynamically functioning family unit. The family is coping with a lot at this time and may only be able to take on small bits of information each session. Modelling strategies and coaching parents how to facilitate the child is also extremely important.
After working in a city school where kids could be exposed to a lot of trauma, I always have to think about the big picture of a child’s life. It’s not just about what happens in the session. That could be 30 minutes out of the child’s entire week. It’s so important to understand what’s going on in that child’s life and their parent’s or caregiver’s life. Sometimes I will have some communication back and forth which I may perceive as negative but I realize that it isn’t toward me. It might be a cultural difference or something stressful or hard is going on. Maybe they didn’t sleep well the night before for whatever reason. That also has to do with communication with the family. If you establish a good relationship with the family, they might be more open to tell you they had a rough weekend, or give you some insight as to why the student isn’t on their game that week.
What advice would you give districts considering online therapy?
The advice I would give depends on where you are. Certain areas could benefit so much from it because there are so many really talented and competent therapists in another place and your district might not have access to them because of where you’re geographically located.
All of the notes you take that are put right into the system makes the therapy process very transparent. I look back at my own events to see what I did with kids even last week and where they are at data wise, or progress wise. It keeps an ongoing tab of everything you’re doing with the child. That is really important. Districts can pull it at any time to see what the therapist is doing and how the child is making progress. It’s right there in SOAP notes…it’s all laid out clearly.
Last, PL is a very motivating and interactive platform.
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