A Public School Speech Pathologist Tells What the Job Entails
If you are considering becoming a speech/language pathologist in the public school system, you may be wondering what you can expect to actually be doing. Of course, the very essence of being a speech/language pathologist is that you will work with children who have a wide range of communication disorders or delays.
Because you will be working with speech and language disorders, you must first understand the difference in the two. Speech is oral communication. Language is the understanding and expression of communication. A child can produce perfect speech sounds but have extremely low language skills. Conversely, a child can have very high-functioning language skills yet have tremendous difficulty with speech production. Sometimes, the same child can have weaknesses in both areas. So, what are the basic types of speech disorders that a speech therapist encounters in the public school system?
- Articulation disorders. These are what are most commonly associated with the forte of the speech therapist. And no doubt, you will work with these a good deal. A child with an articulation disorder has difficulty producing certain speech sounds. For example, saying “tat” for “cat” or “wabbit” for “rabbit.” If a child has an articulation error, it is because he is not using his articulators - such as tongue, teeth, lips, palates - correctly.
- Phonological disorder. This disorder appears very similar to an articulation disorder in that the child is producing sounds incorrectly. The difference is, a child with a phonological disorder produces speech errors relating to an incorrect understanding of a system of sounds. The child produces a pattern of sound errors called “phonological processes”. For example, a child who “deletes final consonants” such as leaving off the “g” in “dog” and the “p” in “cup” may have no difficulty saying the sounds themselves, but does not produce them in word endings.
- Dysfluency/Stuttering. Dysfluent speech is another term for stuttering. Stuttering has nothing to do with the inability to produce sounds. A child that stutters has difficulty producing smooth, fluent speech. Such stuttering patterns include repetitions such as “b-b-b-b-boy”, prolongations such as “mmmmmother”, and repetitions such as “I…(pause)…am going.”
- Voice Disorder. A voice disorder is caused by problems relating to air flowing through the lungs, larynx, and articulators. This can affect a person’s pitch, loudness, or quality of voice. There are many different types of voice disorders, and symptoms may include hoarseness, “nasal” sounding speech, or raspy speech. A child with a suspected voice disorder should first see an otolaryngologist before beginning any type of speech therapy.
Those are the basic types of speech sound disorders, all relating to difficulty in producing spoken communication. A language disorder, however, is a weakness in the comprehension and/or expression of language.
- Auditory Comprehension or Receptive Language disorder. A child that is weak in receptive language has difficulty understanding spoken or written language, due to a weakness in language processing, or the connection between words and ideas they represent. There are many types of receptive language delays, but in a public school setting, some of the typical receptive language delays that you will encounter are those relating to the understanding of age-appropriate vocabulary (word meanings), morphology (changes in word forms such as suffixes and prefixes), and syntax (grammar). A child with a receptive language delay often has difficulty understanding and following directions.
- Expressive Language disorder. A child with this type of disorder had difficulty conveying meaning through spoken or written language. The child may have difficulty with grammar, putting sentences together correctly, and recalling appropriate words and meanings. Children with weaknesses in expressive language do not have the ability to communicate their thoughts, needs, and wants as well as their peers.
Another area of that speech/language pathologists are called on to address is pragmatics. Pragmatics is another word for social language. Some children have difficulty understanding and utilizing appropriate behavior in various social situations. For example, a child who is delayed in the area of pragmatics might not understand turn-taking skills, or the differences in acceptable behavior on the playground versus the classroom. Often children on the autism spectrum have difficulties with pragmatics.
A speech/language pathologist in the public school system should expect to work with children with all types of disorders, because while often a speech or language impairment may be a child’s only exceptionality, these impairments can also be co-morbid with other disorders such as specific learning disability, hearing impaired, intellectually disabled, autistic, or other health impairments. Also, just because you are the speech/language pathologist, this does not necessarily mean you will only work with speech and language problems. Working in a public school setting means you may have to wear many different hats, helping children based on whatever needs arise. I often find myself helping with math homework, science projects, history, even music. When you are a teacher, you never just have one role. Good and effective teachers tackle any need that arises and assists their students in any way possible.
Other duties of a Speech/Language Pathologist:
You are part of the special education/exceptional education team. You are responsible for preparing for and conducting IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meetings, and for understanding and implementing all other parts of the IEP process as mandated by your state’s educational department and the federal government.
You will be expected to maintain good communication with your students’ parents, as well as the classroom teachers. Public relations skills are a must.
You will be expected to evaluate your students with the appropriate speech or language tests, understand the results, and make recommendations for placement in speech/language therapy.
You will conduct oral peripheral screenings, which is an evaluation of the child’s oral structures -including lips, tongue, teeth, velum, tonsils, and palates - and you must be able to distinguish between normal and abnormal structures.
Public school SLPs are often responsible for doing vision and hearing screenings.
You may be wondering what the difference is between a speech/language pathologist and a speech therapist. There is no difference. Speech/language pathologist is the more generally preferred job title, but “speech therapist” has the exact same role. Working in the schools, the kids just generally refer to me as the “speech teacher”, and that’s fine too. I just answer to whatever.
No matter what your titling is, you are first and foremost, a teacher. You may not have a homeroom class or enter grades, but you are expected to perform the same duties and responsibilities as regular teachers. Examples: attending faculty meetings, hall duty, bulletin board displays, PTO meetings. Whatever a regular teacher does, you will also, to some extent, be expected to do. As a speech therapist, you will likely work with multiple grade levels. You will possibly serve more than one school. Currently, I serve two, and in the past I have served as many as six at once. And while that is a rare scenario, you can certainly expect to work at more than one school setting, depending on your case load size and availability of other therapists in the school system. You will likely work with children of all ages. I have worked with children as young as two years old and as old as twenty. So be prepared for anything from wiping noses to listening to boyfriend problems.
Being a speech therapist can be challenging, but it is rarely boring. Some of my most rewarding moments in life have come in the form of working with my students. However, before you decide to enter into this field, you need to determine if you are the type of person who can deal with pretty much anything – from potty training accidents to counseling potential dropouts. You will see and deal with more than you ever expected, but you should never utter the words, “I’ve seen it all.” Because as soon as you do, a surprise will surely await you.