Bridging Special Edu. Resource Gaps with Innovative Solutions - A Special Edu. Director's View | Expert Series

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Amidst the intricacies of childhood development, a substantial number of children face the imminent risk of missing critical speech improvement timelines. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) highlights the trend of increasing prevalence of language and behavioral challenges, impacting around 20% of children and impeding effective communication.

This is compounded by a persistent shortage of special educators with some States resorting to fast-track programs to address the growing gap. This pressing issue underscores the urgent need to comprehend and confront the complex hurdles in the child speech development industry to ensure the comprehensive growth of future generations.

In response to these pressing challenges, Jennifer Keicher, the Special Needs Director of the Los Altos School District, emphasized the need for districts to embrace non-traditional speech development therapy models such as remote communication training support and teletherapy. In our interview with Kiecher, she noted that the key to selecting teletherapy lies in the quality of the provider's remote programming, with an emphasis on responsiveness to individual family needs.

As a whole, districts need to begin to think outside of traditional therapy models to support our students. Quality of remote programming will be the key and the ability of the program to be responsive to individual family needs will be a determining factor," Kiecher said.


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Kiecher noted that at a school district-level, special education teachers and speech pathologists are the two areas they have a consistent need/vacancies over the past five years.

"The impact seen on students is that some services are not able to be delivered, or being delivered by a non-qualified person (sub teacher). Luckily, we have systems of support for teachers to ensure they can deliver a coherent curriculum to students, but no support system exists for missing speech therapists and the missed sessions that kids need," Keicher noted.

She said when there is a lack of support, it is the preschool-aged children that are impacted the most, as they are in the pivotal early intervention stage where everyday counts. "Often these students just receive targeted but sporadic speech therapy, not a complete day program," Keicher noted. She added, "training and guidance to family members and daycare support providers can be a great second option to support the language and social growth of young children."

Keicher said the impact for older students is less, as they are in a full-day classroom setting. "We can support the gaps in specific programming with other types of support for that area of need. For example, a behaviorist can run a social group for students focusing on prosocial behavior and language, teachers explicitly teach language in both written and verbal language as part of the classroom curriculum," Keicher noted.

The role of innovative startups in bridging gaps

The scarcity of in-person special educators is a critical concern, and traditional teletherapy proves inadequate, particularly for young children. To address this gap, Penguinsmart partners with school districts, including Los Altos School District, to provide tailored one-to-one assistance for families with preschoolers. Penguinsmart's strategy includes seamlessly integrating family assessments and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) into home routines, guaranteeing holistic support and fostering comprehensive development. Click here to learn more.

"PenguinSmart has been a tool we've used to support young families when we have had a speech therapist shortage. Direct coaching to families, and a personal connection has been a great alternative to utilize when direct in-person therapy was not available. Feedback from our families has been positive overall," Keicher noted.

Keicher noted that districts need to begin to think outside of traditional therapy models to support our students. Quality of remote programming will be the key and the ability of the program to be responsive to individual family needs will be a determining factor.

"The format of Penguinsmart allows for individualization and personalization for families in multiple ways (mode, language, and programming)," Keicher said.

Penguinsmart's data-driven approach uncovers vital insights shaping customized strategies and interventions. By seamlessly integrating effective communication techniques into daily life, there's a notable acceleration in children's improvement—often surpassing the progress achieved through weekly speech therapy alone by 2-3 times. This active involvement of parents in their child's development, along with tailored lessons and activities facilitated by PenguinSmart's data analytics, not only enhances the child's growth but also boosts the productivity of working parents with children having special needs.


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