In the United States, over a million children receive speech therapy at school to improve their communication abilities. Millions more children and adults receive speech therapy at a private clinic.
In a time of social distancing due to COVID-19, children and their families have been forced to adjust to remote learning. For many children, this means they’ve experienced significant disruptions to these services, while others have forgone care altogether.
For children with speech and language deficits, therapy often isn’t a “quick-fix.” It can take months and, in many cases, years for many children to correct their speech errors, learn self-coping strategies, become proficient communicators, and develop the language skills necessary for academic success. Delaying or interrupting speech therapy can have the consequential effect of detracting from your child’s progress, and they may backslide into old habits.
Fortunately, many speech-language pathologists are now offering virtual services, connecting with children online via video chat. This therapy delivery method can be unfamiliar for some families. They may have questions about the effectiveness, whether their child will pay attention, and if virtual therapy can ever supplement the in-class or on-site experiences of traditional settings. In this article, we’re going to discuss some of the common questions surrounding online speech therapy. First, let’s start with the basics.
How Does Speech Therapy Help Children with Speech and Language Needs?
Speech therapy is a rather broad discipline, and it encompasses many different conditions and diagnoses that can affect a child’s speech, language, voice, and swallowing. If you notice your child struggling with any of these issues, not reaching milestones expected for their age, or lagging behind their peers, they may require professional help.
There are many reasons why children may benefit from speech therapy. Some of the most common speech and language disorders that can impact their day-to-day life include:
- Articulation Disorder: This affects how children say and pronounce certain sounds and words. It can affect the clarity of a child’s speech and potentially make them hard to understand. Instead of saying “rat” your child may say “wat.” Or they may pronounce the word “sing” as “thing.” Children with lisps commonly have trouble with articulation.
- Stuttering/Fluency Disorders: Many of us are intuitively familiar with stuttering, or may have had one as a child. Children with stutters may repeat certain sounds (st-st-st-stand); they may prolong sounds (sssssstand); or they may omit sounds completely (-and). Stuttering can be extremely frustrating for children, affecting their self-esteem and intelligibility.
- Language Delays and Disorders: Children with language disorders may be able to produce sounds and words perfectly, but have trouble putting them together into sentences. They may also have trouble understanding verbal and written communication, which can impact their ability to follow directions, participate in class, and comprehend what they hear and read. Because language forms the basis of communication, delays can impact their eventual speech development.
- Voice Disorders: Some children have problems with the pitch, volume, or resonance of their voice. They may sound like they’re mumbling, or their voices can sound raspy and hoarse as if they have a cold. They may also have trouble projecting the volume of their voice.
- Cognitive-communication Disorders: Cognitive disorders can be caused by a variety of factors, including genetics, injury, or abnormalities in brain development. They can affect a child’s reasoning, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills, their short-term working memory, and they’re ability to concentrate, focus, and stay organized.
While these speech, language, and cognitive issues can happen in isolation, in many cases they can also present simultaneously and be interconnected. Diagnosing them can be difficult to the untrained eye, and generally require a comprehensive evaluation from a speech-language pathologist.
The Benefits of Receiving Speech Therapy Online
Maybe your child has never visited a speech therapist. Maybe they were seeing a therapist prior to the pandemic and have since cancelled or reduced the frequency of sessions. Either way, it’s important for parents and caregivers to understand that just because the setting of speech therapy has changed, doesn’t mean your child won’t receive exception care and make progress towards their communication goals.
In fact, even prior to COVID-19, the adoption of online speech therapy had been growing rapidly. The pandemic has only accelerated this trend as more families realize they can receive high-quality services from the comfort and safety of their homes.
Some of the main benefits of online speech therapy include:
- Effectiveness: Every child is different, and their receptiveness to any method of speech therapy delivery will be highly dependent on their needs and learning style. With that said, numerous studies have shown that virtual speech therapy is an effective alternative to traditional, in-person environments (like schools or clinics). Researchers have demonstrated this by using control groups and standardized testing to compare children receiving speech therapy in each setting. No matter the location, early intervention has shown significant progress in children.
- Personalized Attention: While schools often provide speech therapy, these programs have traditionally been under-resourced, and many children receive therapy in group settings. While this can be effective for some kids, online speech therapy can be a better options for families seeking individualized, one-on-one instruction.
- Convenience: Commuting weekly to a speech therapy clinic, and spending time idly sitting in the waiting room, can be inconvenient and taxing on busy families. It can be hard to fit appointments around work and school schedules. With online speech therapy, you can access your therapist by simply clicking a button on your computer or tablet. Additionally, speech therapists generally have more flexibility in setting their hours, allowing families to schedule sessions in the evenings or weekends when they have more free time. This convenience advantage is especially relevant for families that live in more remote areas.
- Affordability: Think about all the costs that go into running an in-person speech therapy practice: there’s rent for the facility, not to mention the increased liability insurance and administrative costs. This can all translate into more expensive therapy. With online speech therapy, many of these costs are completely negated, and savings can be passed down to families resulting in more affordable therapy.
- Specialization: As mentioned, speech therapy is a wide scope of practice and treats numerous diagnoses. Many speech therapists specialize or have more experience working with certain conditions. For example, a speech therapist with deep expertise on stuttering may not feel as comfortable working with children that have voice issues, and vice versa. That’s why when choosing a speech therapist, it’s important to find a perfect match for your child. With online speech therapy, you’re generally not as limited by the selection of therapists available at a specific location. Since you can work with anyone licensed in your state, it can be easier to find someone best suited to your needs.
- Parent Coaching: Studies have shown that children make more progress when their parents/caregivers are involved. Think about it – if your child is just practicing their speech therapy techniques in a contained environment once or twice a week, it can be harder for them to master these skills. Quality face-to-face time with therapists in schools and clinics can be limited, especially if your therapist is assigned to multiple students. However, with virtual therapy you can sit alongside your child and learn directly from your speech therapist, which can help you apply these lessons into your child’s everyday routines.
- Interactive Learning: Children these days are more proficient and versatile when it comes to digital learning. Many of them have grown up as digital natives, and respond positively to the interactive games, whiteboards, and videos, and activities made possible by a virtual setting. This interactivity helps keep children’s attention and increase their engagement, which in turn leads to more productive sessions.
When it comes to speech therapy, there’s not a “one-size-fits-all” approach that works for every child. Children react differently to different settings, have unique learning styles and attention spans, and respond more positively to certain techniques and teaching practices.
While the pandemic has impacted all of our day-to-day lives, and quality and effectiveness of your child’s speech therapy can remain consistent. Sure, these new learning methods may take a slight period of adjustment. But many families who’ve been switched to online speech therapy will continue receiving services from the comfort of their homes long after the pandemic has stabilized.
About Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP:
Leanne calls Austin, Texas home but studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and gained her Master’s in Speech-language pathology from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She has worked in pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health. Leanne is currently the President and Founder of Expressable online speech therapy, a company that envisions a modern and affordable way for anyone who needs speech therapy to access these vital services.