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.
What inspired you to become an SLP?
I babysat for a 7-year-old girl with autism when I was in high school. I was able to sit in on her speech sessions. When I first met her, her mom picked me up and I turned to the back seat and said Hi, and I got nothing back. I’d never met anyone who didn’t verbally speak back to me. That was a shock for me as a high school kid. She used the Dynavox to communicate which was a major eyeopener. Working with her really sparked my interest. I never knew anything about speech-language pathologist as a career choice before that. From then, I knew that was what I wanted to do. Prior to that insight, I wanted to be on TV, broadcasting. I’d always done TV studio classes and acting before that. I felt this SLP path was so fulfilling and seemed like an overall better career so I went for it at Penn State and majored in Communication Sciences and Disorders.
What made you want to be a teletherapist with PL?
With all the change going on in the world and in my life, I needed some consistency, not only for me, but for the kids too. When my school shut down in Philadelphia in April 2020, it was such a big transition. We didn’t have teletherapy ready or prepared at all. It really wasn’t successful and that was frustrating. I felt like the kids needed consistency and so did I. I moved during this time to New York City so I was ready for a totally new start. I needed something I could count on and students could count on.
My mother and Gila Cohen-Shaw, an SLP with PresenceLearning, and now a Clinical Outreach Manager at PresenceLearning, were good friends when I was a baby. My mom kept in touch with her throughout the years and kept her posted about what was going on in my life. Beginning a year ago, Gila mentioned to my mom that I should look into teletherapy. I had never heard of teletherapy. No one in grad school had ever even talked about it. No one after. Yet Gila has been doing teletherapy for years. I said to her, “I don’t know anything about teletherapy, where have I been?” So we set up a phone call and she recommended that I give it a shot. And she sent me a lot to read about teletherapy. As I read more and more about it, it seemed like a really good option for me, a great change, and something new for me to try. There have been so many more positives as I’ve started working.
What do you enjoy about being a provider with PL?
For one, it’s interactive which is so incredible. We didn’t have that when I was at the school in Philadelphia…we were using Google Meets at my school last year when the pandemic closed the school. I was presenting and presenting and would have a million tabs open up on my computer. I’m a very organized person but it was still mayhem.
Now, ever since I started with PresenceLearning, everything is explained to you. There’s a resource for everything. If I have one little question, all I have to do is type it in and I usually get an answer within a minute. I feel very supported in that way. I have access to a thousand other therapists now. When I was based in a school building, I was typically the only SLP there. I’d hear “What’s speech? What’s your job?” Now, I have quite a sense of community.
And I find that the kids are so motivated by technology. They’re not afraid of it. They’re not intimidated by it. They’re just so excited by it. Today with PresenceLearning I service kids in Vermont which is very different than Philadelphia. I did an “All About Me” activity at the beginning of the school year. The kids were telling me they kayak, and camp, and go mountain biking. I’d never had a student who did any of that. And today, I had a kid teach me all about mountain biking, sharing all these terms that I’d never heard of ever. You learn a lot from new people who you’re maybe not around in your little bubble of where you live. Overall, I’m very happy with what I am doing right now.
What were you most surprised about when you made the transition to be a teletherapist?
I would say the PresenceLearning platform. I really think the platform is just made for this. It’s like someone thought up all the things that I would wish to have or would have thought up—oh, I wish I had dice I could roll around on the screen—now I do. I use the white board a lot…it’s just so cool. I didn’t understand it at first. So I was really surprised about the platform in a good way.
I’ve always loved individualizing a session. Now I can do that times 10. At the end of a session, let’s say a student wins a game—and says ”Oh I love Sponge Bob.” I can whip up a gif with Sponge Bob. Or maybe they say they’d love to see Harry Potter. Anything they love, I can tailor to them. I have everything at my fingertips here.
I used to get interrupted during my day all the time—by teachers, other kids, other staff members. Someone would see me walking in the hallway and they’d think it was an opportunity to grab me and have a conversation about whatever, school-related or not. I was always on the run all day! From the second I got to the building to the second I left, I was running upstairs, downstairs, getting this kid, that kid, switching, constantly running everywhere. It was just a crazy day, everyday!
And now, I am in my therapy room and no one can get in! It’s just the two of us. Nobody can enter. I feel like it’s so much more focused.
What do you find most challenging about being a teletherapist?
It’s different. I’m spending a lot of time at home. I happen to like it. As much as I love going out and about, I am a homebody at heart. I feel very comfortable at home. I have my dog here. He’ll make an appearance. The kids are into it. I try not to incorporate him too much but sometimes he’ll walk by.
Some things are challenging. At first I was getting a little neck soreness. Now I try to get up after every kid, even if I just go to the kitchen. I’ve made that better for myself.
One thing that’s been the most challenging that I’ve realized lately is communications. A typical conversation I might have in school with somebody takes a lot longer because I’m emailing back and forth. Before when I was in the school building, I’d just run down the hall and find the person I needed. Now, I email, wait for a response, trust they read my email, and respond when I hear back. It’s just more communication steps. It’s not really a bad thing. It’s different because we’re not in the same physical location. I’ve learned to become very specific and concise in what I am communicating. I try not to waste anyone’s time. Everyone is so busy and dealing with a million things, in the building and out of the building. I try not to stress people out with my email communication.
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.
Could you walk us through your daily routine? A “day in the life of a PL therapist” if you will?
I’m the most boring person because all I do is have a routine—I don’t like to change. I wake up around 6 am. I get up and take my dog outside. The weather determines how long we’ll be outside. I’m usually ready for school way early. I like to straighten everything up before I get my day started. I’ll get my water ready, and my breakfast. Sometimes I might start at 7:45, other days it might be 8. Depending on when I start determines when I sit down. I usually answer some emails. I open up all my tabs. Since I use a lot of my own workbooks, I’ll have those open on the bottom of my computer. A lot of my kids have a vocalic R problem. So I have the vocalic R workbook there at the bottom. And then I’m ready to go. I go through my day, meeting with students.
After my sessions, I finish up with my emails and then I need some “me time.” I walk away from my computer and I take my dog on a nice walk. Then I do my exercise routine. When quarantine hit, I started exercising everyday. I do it on a Google Meet with a couple of friends I used to work with in my previous school and we still do it to this day. It makes me more accountable. And then it’s shower, dinner, clean up. If I have to prep anything for the next day, I will. I like to write everything out.
What age range/student population are you currently serving? Please include demographic information.
I am currently serving students from kindergarten through 8th grade in Vermont. My students have a variety of speech and language goals ranging from articulation, to expressive and receptive language skills, as well as pragmatics.
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