Communication difficulties affect the most vulnerable in our society – children and adults with disabilities. And, without communication, we are separated from people ultimately missing life’s most vital element: the human connection.
May is designated as Better Hearing and Speech Month. For over 75 years this is the time to raise awareness and understanding of the various forms of communication challenges including hearing, speech, language and voice.
This is why I felt it so important to interview Speech-Language Pathologists from the school at the Barber National Institute. As I reflect on their statements, I am reminded of the importance of their role with our children.
Stephanie Rose-Briggs, M.A.
Stephanie attended SUNY in Plattsburgh, New York for her bachelor’s degree and Edinboro University of PA for a master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology.
Erik Undzius, M.A.
Erik earned his Master of Arts in Speech-Language Pathology and teaching certifications from Edinboro University.
Stephanie explained that upon completion of graduate studies, Speech-language Pathologists must complete an additional year of training as a Clinical Fellow in a work setting. Following the completion of the fellowship year, candidates can then apply for their Certificate of Clinical Competence through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Having this certificate allows them to work in both clinical and school environments.
Why did you choose your profession?
EU: I chose speech-language pathology as a career due to having been involved in many different aspects of special education my whole life. My parents were both school psychologists and my mother eventually became a high school guidance counselor and I really enjoyed the kids she interacted with on a daily basis and the positive changes my mother made to their lives in general. I felt as though I would like to contribute to a profession that helps, nurtures and promotes growth as well as being an advocate for children and individuals with disabilities.
SRB: I sometimes think the profession chose me! I knew from about the age of 13 years that this was the career I wanted. My mother was fluent in Latin and French. She loved the rhythm, music and creativity of language and I think her love of all things written and spoken rubbed off on our family. And, by the way, I have never changed my mind about the choice of career. I continue to think it is an exciting and challenging field with new things to learn all the time!
What is the difference between speech and language?
EU: This is the second most common question most speech-language pathologists are asked. As simply as possible, speech is the physical component of sounds and sound patterns that relate to articulation, prosody, vocal quality and speech fluency appropriate for an individual’s age and sex as well as for the language that they natively speak. Language on the other hand is an abstract system of symbols, either written or spoken, that convey a message. Of course, it’s much deeper than that, but this gives you a broad understanding of the difference between the two.
SRB: We look at speech primarily in terms of sound production: A speaker’s pitch, volume, intonation and ability to be intelligible to listeners. Language involves the complexities of receptive and expressive skills. Receptive language is what we understand from written or spoken language. Expressive language involves any aspect of giving a message to another person. When we look at language we look at how a person processes language. Are certain skills, such as content, syntax and grammar, intact? Is the student able to get a message across quickly and efficiently?
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
EU: I enjoy working with the students and their families to facilitate speech and language development and revel in the gains that these incredible students achieve on a daily basis. Even the smallest improvement is a fantastic leap towards them accomplishing both academic and social success.
SRB: It is so exciting to see a student learn some form of communication, whether it is using words, signs, pictures or an augmentative/alternative communication device!
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
EU: The individual nature of each student provides endless discussion and theorizing. I am asked on a consistent basis if a child will be able to ‘talk’ one day. I don’t have the answers for that. But what I do know is that I provide the best possible therapy for each and every student I work with to help them attain independence in their life, reach full potential in functional tasks and communicate as effectively as possible whether it be through verbal communication or through the use of assistive/augmentative communication devices.
SRB: The most challenging aspect of the job is keeping up with the rapidly exploding communication technologies and new things being discovered about communication.
What are 5 strategies/technologies parents use to help their child’s speech and language development?
EU: My biggest suggestion is to “teach by doing, not by saying.” Physically demonstrate concepts, use hand-over-hand teaching techniques. We learn more by actively doing.
- Assistive and augmentative communication (i.e., pictures, communication devices, touch screens, sign language) to supplement language development and provide children with an effective way to communicate besides verbal language.
- Engage in play activities that involve direct eye-contact, modeling of play and behaviors, modeling words and sounds, and even imitate the vocal sounds from your child.
- Interact with computer software that has a reciprocal component to it such as asks questions and then requires an answer. If you don’t have software of that nature, engage in pseudo-conversation with your child and respond to vocalizations and gestures as though they are a meaningful element in the conversational exchange.
- Shape current behaviors and learned compensatory techniques to facilitate errorless learning. If your child keeps pointing to the food cabinet or to toys that are outside of his/her reach, place a picture of that item within reach and model the ability to take the picture and have the child hand it to you, or provide a sign that relates to the item/activity being requested. Again, teach by doing.
SRB: I always recommend that parents just provide the basics: Read, read, read. Listen, listen, listen. And have fun conversing with your child. If a child feels a parent is truly attentive to what is being said and takes time to respond in a loving way, then speech and language gets practiced and explored as part of natural growth.
I also recommend going to education-based websites that are appropriate to the child’s age. Technology is changing so rapidly that there are many enjoyable websites which encourage learning phonics, early reading skills and practicing the art of answering questions related to fun activities.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
EU: When I tell people that I am a speech-language pathologist (or speech therapist for brevity), most people ask me to ‘fix’ how they talk or ask how to make someone talk. My primary focus is on intentful and functional communication so that the individuals I work with can meet even their most basic of needs and wants. I am less concerned with the grammatical errors we are all guilty of committing on a daily basis.
SRB: I would say there are two common misconceptions. The first is that most people do not understand part of our job is to determine safety of eating and swallowing of students who may be at risk for choking or aspirate pneumonia. Secondly, many people think we only work with students to correct speech sounds such as /s/ or /r/ sounds.
How does communication connect children and why is it important?
EU: Communication is an absolute need for people and is one of the most basic skills we as humans have in our genetic makeup. We crave communication with other people because we are social beings. Communicating with other people allows us to expand our knowledge, involve ourselves in meaningful relationships, protect us from danger and provide awareness about ourselves and the environment surrounding us. For children, communication is the pinnacle aspect of social and academic success. Communication begins at a very young age, and we as social being are always learning. So throughout life we are learning how best to communicate things – get what we want, relate to other people, be socially acceptable and aware of the contextual cues around us to function appropriately and effectively in the world. Communication in turn then allows us to be successful in just about every aspect of today’s world by promoting academic success, social acceptance and functional significance in every aspect of life.
SRB: Communication is the way we tell others our wants and needs. It is how we share our feelings and our ideas. It is the way we establish our friendships, find out how we are common and different, and how we settle problems that arise. It is a vital part of our lives for it is the means we use to live and grow in community with others.
Erik has been employed at the Barber National Institute since September 2011. Stephanie has been a full-time employee of the Barber National Institute since 2005. However, she worked as a contract speech-language pathologist for the Institute off and on since 1994.