US schools are experiencing an urgent shortage of speech-language pathologists who are based in schools.
I should know. I’m an SLP.
Working with kids to develop their speech and language skills is incredibly rewarding. But school SLPs need help. Even before the pandemic, approximately 60% of SLPs perceived their caseloads as unmanageable. In the aftermath of pandemic-related school closures, SLPs now face additional challenges, including more of everything: paperwork, evaluations and amended IFSP and IEP meetings. Despite the challenges, a career in speech-language pathology is worth pursuing, and we need you!
I was a full-time public school-based SLP until June 2021. In July of that year, I opened a private practice that primarily contracts to schools, helping to fill staffing gaps at five public school campuses, nine private schools, one Head Start program and two day care facilities, working with toddlers to 20-year-olds. More than 215 students in my local area have benefitted from speech therapy with us.
Therapy helps students participate in classes
Speech therapy services can be life-changing. I had the pleasure of helping a young student who was diagnosed with a rare speech disorder who came to me with only four words at 3½ years old. This student was unable to express herself or communicate her needs and wants at school. With intense speech therapy services, by the time this child entered kindergarten, she was using full sentences and was able to communicate with family, teachers and peers. Speech therapy services also improved her ability to participate in classroom activities and fully access the curriculum.
I’ve seen many friends and colleagues leave the school environment for outpatient clinics, hospitals, rehabs or home health. The reason is obvious. Speech pathology requires a Master’s degree, and the profession is licensed by states and certified nationally, which requires passing a Praxis exam and completing over 1,200 hours of a clinical fellowship. Given the extensive investment of time and money, many SLPs are disappointed to learn that working in schools is not the most lucrative career path, and some are forced to choose a higher-paying setting.
It’s a shame, because the shortage of speech-language pathologists based in schools is projected to grow. Children born during the pandemic have nearly twice the risk of developmental delays in communication and social development. As these children age into preschool and elementary school, they will add to a population that is already suffering from learning loss. School-aged children in the UK also are struggling with communication and language development: 96% (55 of 57 schools surveyed) reported being” very concerned” or “quite concerned” about learning loss in those areas.
It is essential that schools and districts plan for the future. The field is growing, with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting the need for 21% more SLPs between 2021 and 2031, a faster growth rate than the average rate for all other occupations. What are schools going to do to keep the next generation of SLPs interested in school-based therapy?
Here are my recommendations to schools and districts to avoid a crisis in the coming years.
1. Plan to pay SLPs appropriately
On average, school-based SLPs are paid lower than other highly qualified professionals in schools, such as occupational therapists, physical therapists, counselors and school psychologists. I conducted a poll of almost 3,000 school-based SLPs in the US, and 59.1% of respondents reported being paid on a regular teacher’s scale, despite their advanced education, training and expertise. Of the 40.9% who reported they are not paid on a teacher’s scale, 40% are being paid on a Master’s degree scale, which is still not sufficient.
The other professionals mentioned above have a separate pay scale in most school districts, and so should school-based SLPs. This will help with retention, which ultimately saves districts money by making a dent in the shortage of speech-language pathologists.
2. Fight burnout with new hires or contract services
In my area, as in many others, the pandemic has increased caseload. We saw an increase in referrals the last three years, especially with the younger children. Continually increasing caseloads without hiring more SLPs will eventually lead to burnout and exacerbate the shortage of speech-language pathologists. School districts should hire more SLP staff and/or consider using contract speech pathologists to fill positions.
3. Consider a teletherapy option
Many districts prefer in-person therapy; however, in the most overburdened and some rural districts, teletherapy may be the only feasible option. Teletherapy services are not a new thing. They were around way before the pandemic started. This service delivery model has been proven to be just as effective in most cases as in-person services.
Over the past three years, we have seen incredible advancements in technology, allowing therapists and students to interact during virtual therapy sessions in a way that is engaging and effective for the students. School districts should consider this option instead of expecting their current speech pathologists to compensate for their lack of staff.
4. Give SLPs all the tools they need to succeed
With high caseloads, SLPs find it difficult to plan and prep materials for therapy. SLPs and classroom teachers shouldn’t have to pay for these tools out-of-pocket.
Schools can provide time-saving technology, such as Boom Cards’ pre-made and custom speech therapy activities, to help SLPs manage the demands of our workloads. Tools like this can cut down on planning time and offer versatility in use with smart boards, computers or tablets. Many tools also can be used at home with caregivers, enhancing a student’s progress.
With the help of an augmentative and alternative communications device, I was able to help a student who, at 5 years old, was unable to speak due to a motor speech impairment. We used a voice output device on a tablet that allowed her to select pictures of words she wanted to say, and the device verbalized the message for her. After less than one year of therapy, this student was able to use her device to not only communicate her needs and wants, but also answer questions during class lessons, order food at a restaurant, initiate play with her peers and so much more. After about two years, this student started speaking with her device and has been using both verbal speech and her device to communicate to this day.
We are likely to see a continuing surge in speech-language issues, and schools need to be prepared with enough highly skilled specialists to help make differences in the most efficient way.
Amanda Schaumburg is a private-practice/contract speech language pathologist in Texas who offers speech therapy services, professional development and tele-therapy, and she also has experience in outpatient clinics, early childhood intervention programs and rehab centers. She has authored speech therapy and educational resources for her Panda Speech store and also uses Boom Cards in her work.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.