Back to School: We’re All in this Together

It’s that time of year again: stores are stocked with school supplies, yellow school buses have come out of hibernation, and the Fall air is energized as everyone has returned to school.

The first few weeks of the school year are often hectic for school-based speech-language pathologists (SLPs) as we decorate our rooms, review caseloads, assemble therapy schedules, and collaborate with teachers. This article discusses factors in the school setting that can help increase team collaboration, ultimately improving students’ academic growth.  Here, we discuss the role of the SLP in fostering collaborative relationships.

Prior to my life as an SLP, I trained in elementary education and was licensed in regular education. While my alma mater was consistently ranked among the top schools in the nation for elementary education, most of what I learned about working with children with special needs comes from “on the job” experience.  In my teacher training coursework, I took a course on teaching students with special needs where we learned about different disorders and teaching strategies. However, I remember only one lecture in my entire teacher training program where we discussed the IEP (Individualized Education Plan). The focus of that lecture was learning what an IEP was and not necessarily how to implement it in my classroom.

A recent survey of parents, students, and teachers regarding IEPs shows that when it comes to meeting students’ needs, IEP team members highly rated the development of goals and IEPs but poorly rated implementation of IEPs (Cavendish & Connor, 2017).  An IEP is only as effective as its implementation.

Having spent time in schools as a teacher and as an SLP, here are some of the barriers I have seen that prevent a true team approach with IEP implementation: awareness, access, staff consistency, and staff experience.

Awareness and Access to Documents

Teachers are often given a list of students with IEPs at the beginning of the year. If they’re lucky, they may also receive a brief summary sheet listing the goals. However, this is not always the case.  

My own school district recently changed computer software programs upon which we write our IEPs. Several of my colleagues simply did not know how to navigate the new software interface and access their students’ IEPs on the new system.  Anecdotally, many staff also commented on how just a change in IEP formatting made finding specific details within the documents more challenging.

In other districts, regular education teachers may need to request access via the case manager or go the old-fashioned route of digging through hard copy cumulative folders.  Teachers may not always know who to ask or where pertinent information is located, both within the school building and also within the IEP itself.

Showing a colleague how to access and read a student’s IEP only takes a few minutes, but can have a significant impact on the implementation of that IEP.

Consistency in Staff

Current research suggests that as many as 46% of new teachers (those with less than five years of experience) leave the profession and nearly 10% leave after teaching for one year or less (Dachille & Ruff, 2017).  Attrition rates for special education teachers within their first year are consistent with their regular education counterparts (Grant, 2017).  Meanwhile, the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) projects that by 2024, the field of speech-language pathology will have grown as much as 21% (Market Trends in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology, n.d.).

This means a student’s IEP team could drastically change from year to year.  Even if no staffing changes occur at your school, the student has likely been promoted to the next grade level and will have different teachers than the previous year.  As an SLP returning to the same school, you might be the only consistent staff member on a student’s IEP team.  It may be up to you to help educate colleagues about the student’s history, disorders, and recommendations made in the IEP from year to year.

Staff Relationships and Experience

As was previously discussed, the teaching profession has a very high attrition rate.  Many of our colleagues are within their first three years of the profession, some having not gone through a traditional teacher preparation program.

It can be challenging to build strong working relationships when there is a revolving door of staff.  I like to introduce myself, my role in the school, and give a brief overview of the students we share: “Student X has autism, can be silly, and LOVES dinosaurs.  We’re working on conversational turn-taking and making comments such as ‘I like that’ or ‘That sounds like fun’.”

Providing the teacher brief and regular updates on progress helps him/her understand why X receives speech and language services and the goals being addressed: “X asked 3 wh-questions about the lunch menu today without prompts” or “X said 100 /r/ words and was 60% accurate today.”  Giving regular updates about a child’s progress (or even having the child give the update himself/herself) helps the teacher buy-in to the therapy process and feel connected to the speech-language goals.

Even if a teacher reads the goals, understands the goals, and knows the accommodations; teachers are not always trained or confident in their training to implement speech and language strategies in their classrooms. Research shows that preservice teachers are more favorable toward inclusive practices for students in special education, their training in teaching students with disabilities, and felt inclusive practices were more effective than established teachers (Burke & Sutherland, 2004). However, the study focused on special education in general, not specifically speech and language disorders. Additionally, these same teachers experience high burnout and turnover rates within the first few years of their careers (Dachille & Ruff, 2017).

One way to help educate our colleagues about disorders and their students’ goals is to have the student model the speech and language behavior and ask them to help us take data.  For example, I had a student who was working on social language: initiating and responding to social greetings with oral language.  I told this teacher to greet her students per her usual routine.  If the student responded with an appropriate verbal greeting, make note of it and email me.

Having buy-in from the teacher helps the teacher understand the speech and language goals, allows him/her to notice errors, and offer positive feedback during regular instruction.

What Does All of This Mean?

As speech-language pathologists, we are trained experts in communication.  Communication is the key to true team collaboration and overcoming some of the barriers to IEP implementation across all settings:

  • Educate our colleagues about our students’ disorders and their goals.

  • Teach and model the strategies we want teachers to use to assist students with communication.

  • Include the classroom teachers in students’ successes and concerns outside of the IEP meetings.

Here’s to a great school year of collaboration and IEP implementation across settings!

Peter Kao, MS, CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His interests include early childhood language, fluency, and voice disorders. You may contact Peter on LinkedIn.

Burke, K., & Sutherland, C. (2004). Attitudes toward inclusion: Knowledge vs. Experience. Education, 125(2), 163-172.

Cavendish, W., & Connor, D. (2017). Toward Authentic IEPs and Transition Plans: Student, Parent, and Teacher Perspectives. Learning Disability Quarterly, 0731948716684680.

Dachille, G. W., & Ruff, C. (2017). The Revolving Door of Education: Teacher Turnover and Retention amongst the Graduates of a Liberal Arts Teacher Education Program.

Grant, M. C. (2017). A Case Study of Factors That Influenced the Attrition or Retention of Two First-Year Special Education Teachers. Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals, 77, 84.

Market Trends in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology. (n.d.). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from