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Supporting Teletherapy at Home: Empowering Parents as Partners

, By Aaron Cotton

Teletherapy Offers Bright Spots Amid Challenges

Most often a Primary Support Person (PSP) would help to support a student’s teletherapy session in the school setting. But during the pandemic much has changed. Communities have witnessed firsthand how parents and caregivers have risen to many occasions whenever they can and as best they can, including in this critical role. And, when a parent or caregiver hasn’t been able to step in and help outside of school, sometimes the family has sought help in the local community. No matter how therapy has been delivered during this complex time in the world, the emerging experience of parental involvement in special education has had some bright spots of note–opening up the child’s daily work to parents and caregivers in new, often insightful ways. 

“It’s nice to have a parent sitting with their child during therapy, so they can see what we are working on and then reinforce those things for the rest of the week; this helps immensely with student progress,” said Totman. 

The widespread shift from onsite to in-home therapy can present a particularly special opportunity for providers to connect with parents, build rapport, and see the home environments in ways that have not been possible previously. As the parent or caregiver witnesses strategies firsthand, they often gain deeper knowledge into the child’s therapy exercises and goals, which can enhance how they support their child throughout the week and provide opportunities for “carry over” of skills. For example, the nightly dinner table may become a richer opportunity to practice a child’s developing speech or fine motor skills, while online meetings with relatives can support social emotional learning (SEL) skills and bedtime may present an opportunity for practicing mental health exercises that help reduce stress and anxiety. 

“The parents I work with really appreciate PresenceLearning as well,” said Melissa Phillips, Speech Language Pathologist, Lewis Cass ISD in Michigan. “One mom said to me, ‘Holy cow—I didn’t realize my son could pay attention like that!’ The PresenceLearning format really helps to facilitate attention during speech sessions.”

Many of PresenceLearning’s customer schools have cited a number of additional benefits for parents and children, including ease-of-use on the platform and continued engagement with a clinician who can meet the student’s needs–and sometimes even the family’s. Another added benefit of PresenceLearning’s broad network of clinicians is access to a growing number of bilingual speech therapists, for example, who may be able to speak in the family’s native language, which can help support better communication and coordination with the parent. 

“Amid all the challenges of COVID-19, there have been learning curves as families and school-based providers adjust to remote services. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but among our customers there have been uplifting moments and signs of growth. What we have heard in particular from several school teams we serve is that the opportunity to connect with parents more deeply, develop a shared understanding, and deploy student-centered approaches together can be extraordinarily impactful,” said Kristin Martinez,  MA, CCC-SLP, Clinical Director,  SLP & OT. 

According to a recent report from the United States Government Accountability Office on distance learning for English language learners and students with disabilities during the pandemic, there were a few other benefits noted from across several districts, including added flexibility for the parent or caregiver. Among the 15 districts the GAO surveyed, several parents commented favorably on the online format for holding IEP and other meetings virtually, where before they may have struggled to make the meeting due to work or travel time. Officials from two districts said the virtual IEP meetings may be here to stay, even after they fully return to in-person education. They also noted that “this has been a catalyst to look at education more broadly in a different way—to figure out who will benefit from virtual solutions, and to give families these options.” But, as the report notes, the transition was also not without its challenges; enhanced technology can help mitigate those, in some cases, but society will need to continue to bring ongoing progress in other cases. Among the leading challenges for schools and families were a lack of technology support and resources or parents needing to serve in too many roles at once, especially among those families in vulnerable communities. 

Leading Benefits

Among some of the leading benefits of parent/caregiver as support person are:

  • Carry Over: Firsthand knowledge and experience with a child’s therapy supports the parent in providing regular and enhanced support throughout the week, which leads to “carry over” of skills. Dinner conversation can be a time, for instance, when the family can help their child practice new speech therapy exercises.  
  • Knowing Your Child: You know the needs of your child better than anyone else. Seeing your child working directly with their therapist helps you to understand even better their day-to-day challenges and successes in the context of their IEP and helps you to connect these insights with ones from the home environment. 
  • Parent-Therapst Relationship: As parents and providers get to know each other better, they can have more meaningful, realistic conversations about the child’s progress and goals and carry out a plan together. The parent or caregiver can be a valuable addition and insightful perspective for the broader IEP team. 
  • Flexibility and Participation: Where parents were normally informed of their child’s progress during conferences or when a problem arose, they can now glean more regular insights through online connections. They can also more readily make IEP meetings in a virtual format.
  • Meaningful Outcomes: What’s true of general education is also true of special education. Greater support and involvement from parents can lead to more meaningful outcomes for students.
  • Continuity: The ability to sustain teletherapy and tele-assessment services smoothly, whether in school or at home, can help to prevent the regression or loss of crucial skills. 

Teletherapy Best Practices

There are a number of best practices for schools and parents to consider, as they build a more substantial relationship in a remote context or any context. Schools might start by asking a few key questions as they prepare for working with parents as partners:

  • What is the first choice channel to communicate with one another?
  • What schedule and frequency would be best for communication?
  • What information do parents need from the school to be able to facilitate their childrens’ teletherapy sessions?
  • How will the school and parent handle at-home tech support?

To help parents feel confident that they can facilitate effectively and support their children in teletherapy, schools transitioning to home services should provide a best practices checklist and clear instructions for parents. And they should make sure that parents have quick access to reliable tech support to minimize any down time and frustration. Some schools use a combination of emails and phone calls to introduce the idea of teletherapy to parents initially, and follow-up with regular and frequent check-ins. 

“Communication with parents is extremely important…Be very transparent about what you’re doing. We always gave parents the option to opt out of group speech and do 1:1 individual. And we asked them to sign a waiver as well. No one had a problem with that. It worked out very well,” said Mike Lowers, executive director of Central Kansas Cooperative in Education, which provides special education services to districts in Kansas.  

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