The Rise of Tele-Therapy in the Age of Pandemics

The first significant pandemic in over a one hundred years is straining every facet of our daily lives. Perhaps most prominently affected, aside from healthcare, is our education system. According to several experts, we can expect to see nearly 57 million students directly affected. With school closures ushered in hurriedly, few school districts had sufficient preparation time. And although many school systems were already dabbling in distance learning strategies prior to the outbreak, the majority of school systems have been sent scrambling to cobble together a comprehensive plan. Amidst the chaos, an important group in the educational ecosystem, speech-language pathologists, SLPs or speech therapists, have largely been left out of contingency planning.

SLPs play a vital role in the educational ecosystem. As many as 5 percent of school-aged children are believed to have a language disorder. SLPs help improve how well a child is learning and performing in the classroom by fostering a child’s ability to understand and use language. When speech-language difficulties go untreated, children may develop expressive language deficiencies, behavioral challenges, and mental health problems. Children who struggle with a communication disorder become stuck in their own thoughts with no easy way to explain them. This inevitably impedes their ability to academically thrive. During this period of social distancing, children are separated from their peers and start to lose social language. And while a child has accumulated gains during the school year, those skills can just as easily recede without practice and repetition. To maintain permanency, it is important to consistently work on those skills.

Unfortunately, from our early research, we are finding that many school districts have been forced to “unplug” their speech therapy, and other related services, until schools return to ‘business-as-usual’. This is problematic for those children who receive services exclusively through their school district. With some pundits predicting that schools may be out for much longer than anticipated, it is imperative that families not wait and see; rather, they should pursue their own speech therapy contingency plan.

To sustain and advance your child’s speech and language skills, I recommend seeking out an SLP that is actively providing virtual speech therapy, or tele-therapy. Tele-Therapy is a technology-mediated session in which both therapist and student can see, hear, and interact with one another in real-time, using webcams in a live, synchronous online learning environment. Tele-Therapy is NOT putting your child in front of a computer screen and walking away. In fact, tele-therapy is a very distinct method of facilitating speech therapy sessions that requires significant expertise in both speech-language therapy and virtual treatment.

For some children, in-person therapy is necessary and invaluable. But for others, tele-therapy can be just as effective and personable as face-to-face therapy. And in fact, we have found that tele-therapy can be a preferred method for delivering treatment. One of the most noticeable advantages is parent participation. Tele-Therapy presents a perfect opportunity for the parents to get involved in treatment and to help with improving carryover. The virtual at-home experience provides a glimpse into the child’s treatment session and guides parents to follow through with specific therapeutic cues, activities, and goals. Often in traditional speech therapy, the parents are not involved in the session and do not have insight as to how therapy is conducted. By involving parents in the treatment process, the therapeutic practice becomes a part of the child’s everyday experience instead of clinical.

A second unintended benefit of tele-therapy is that children stay highly engaged and connected with the therapist and activities. The visual experience provides for near uninterrupted eye contact as well as immediate visual feedback. The treatment experience on most therapeutic platforms allows for the child to not only see the therapist in real-time but also themselves. This is important because the child can monitor themselves, identify their own errors and self-correct. We have observed faster self-awareness and improved carry over skills. Finally, one last unexpected benefit has to do with the children’s perception of the tele-therapy medium. Children love using a device that is oftentimes limited in its use and associated with play. Logging on to a modern, connected device they easily forget that this is therapy and perceive it as fun.

We may be living in difficult, isolated times. But difficult times demand we think outside of the therapeutic box. The use of tele-therapy does not represent a compromise in care. Rather, it represents a new and better way of treating and connecting. While school systems and parents are trying to adjust to the new reality, we are in a position to not just maintain the accumulated gains but perhaps bring them to an entirely new level.

Shery Seewald is a dual certified speech-language pathologist and special education teacher. Shery is also the Founder and Director at NJ Steps, a pediatric speech language pathology practice in Montville, NJ.