By Jenny Barker, PresenceLearning Editor
December 3, 2020
As schools across the country continue in fully remote or hybrid models during the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and caregivers are often serving in a range of essential roles when it comes to supporting school at home: tutor, proctor, lunch provider, recess aid, and more. In addition to those responsibilities, there is currently a substantial need for special education and related services support at home, which can bring profound challenges and opportunities for parents and caregivers. These services meet a range of needs, from children who require psychoeducational assessment to those with needs in speech language therapy, occupational therapy, and other disabilities. Continuity is particularly critical for special education students, as lapses in services can cause students to miss developmental milestones and lose necessary skills.
During the pandemic and in other cases of school closures, a robust, online solution can support a smooth transition to sustainable services at home and even open up new possibilities. Some families may find, in particular, that a shift to home-based teletherapy can open up a stronger and more enriching relationship among the parent, child, and therapist. While there are some initial and ongoing challenges for some families to navigate, there are often a range of particularly compelling benefits, many of which could be here to stay. Where parents or caregivers were previously not as involved in their child’s daily therapy, they are now seeing up close how it works and how they can be more deeply involved.
What Is Teletherapy?
During school closures, schools must ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, each student with a disability can still be provided the special education and related services identified in the student’s individualized education program (IEP). Enter teletherapy.
Teletherapy has become far more prevalent during the pandemic, but it is not at all a new form of therapy. Teletherapy is a solution that helps meet the needs of students, whether they are at home or in a school-based setting. During the past decade, a growing number of special education students and their families have had meaningful experiences with some form of teletherapy. When schools integrate teletherapy into their service delivery model, they open up access for school teams and students and help their communities meet the changing needs of today’s world. They also open up opportunities for the parent or caregiver at home to become engaged more regularly.
When it comes to teletherapy solutions, however, not all are created equally. There are certainly a variety of videoconferencing tools available that can support general, online teacher-student meetings. But, in supporting special education students, there are special considerations. PresenceLearning has often heard from schools, for example, that a standalone videoconference format has really fallen short when it comes to engaging students with special needs—and that they need a better, more substantive approach. That’s where access to a proprietary platform like PresenceLearning’s can bring expanded support and expertise. When used well, teletherapy can be a really effective and positive experience for students and families.
“There is a huge variety of interactive games and tools on the PresenceLearning platform, all of which keep the students eager to participate in therapy,” said Karen Totman, a school-based Speech Language Provider (SLP), at Maine School Administrative District 75 (MSAD-75). “The students actually get to turn over their own cards during a matching game, for instance, by clicking on them—rather than watching me flip over the cards in a video. I can also customize the cards to suit both their interests and needs; I can choose a shark reward for the child who likes sharks, and easily create customized cards with ‘F’ sounds for the child who needs to work on that. Students stay much more engaged because they are actively participating in an activity that relates to their own life, rather than just watching me move things around on the screen as they had been doing in the spring before we adopted PresenceLearning.”
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.
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.
When the pandemic hit and schools went remote, PresenceLearning was in a unique position to help its customers and a growing number of new schools and districts provide and sustain remote, special education related services for their students. PresenceLearning most often helps to extend a school-based special education team, connecting each student to a licensed clinician who can support the student’s individual needs and aspirations (drawn from a network of nearly 1,500 clinicians from across the country), along with access to interactive content and tools on the platform to support each student’s session.
During the spring of 2020, PresenceLearning developed a new solution, Teletherapy Essentials, to train and support school-based teams in serving students with special needs remotely and directly through the platform. When combined with the company’s teletherapy and tele-assessment training, the PresenceLearning platform, designed by clinicians for clinicians, enabled school-based clinicians to continue serving their students wherever they are. This fall the company continues to support schools across the country in hybrid and remote models and is also helping schools to address a backlog in assessments and provide recovery services.
“School teams are under tremendous pressure to maintain all of their services for students, while needing to change nearly everything about how they deliver them,” said Kate Eberle Walker, CEO of PresenceLearning. “At PresenceLearning, we have really tried to step up to share what we know from our decade of problem solving for how to deliver great online special education services to students with special needs.”
PresenceLearning is the leading provider of live, online teletherapy and tele-assessment services.
Since 2011, PresenceLearning has provided nearly 2.5 million teletherapy sessions to a diverse range of students with special needs (both in school and in home-based settings) through its proprietary platform, designed by clinicians for clinicians. Providers in the company’s network reap the many benefits of a community with clinical and technical support, while also enjoying the flexibility of independent work. PresenceLearning’s goal is to make teletherapy the best it can possibly be for all providers and their students.
“I thought students would need in-person therapy to build relationships with their therapists and make progress. But, I was very wrong about that,”
Lori Pate, assistant principal, Kershaw County School District.
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