Many students with special needs have issues with communication challenges. Broken down basically, there can be issues with:
- A speech disorder – This can include articulation issues like not being able to pronounce the “th” sound; fluency issues like stuttering over words or phrases, and/or a voice disorder where students have difficulty with pitch, loudness, resonance, or duration.
- A language disorder – This can include phonology which involves patterns of speech sounds, semantics which includes the meanings of words and sentences, and/or pragmatics which involves combining the language components in functional and socially appropriate communication such as greeting a peer upon meeting or following rules like taking turns when speaking.
- A hearing disorder – This can include deafness or hard of hard of hearing (hearing impaired), or a more complex auditory processing disorder where words are heard but not processed correctly. A student may have trouble differentiating the “ch” sound in choke vs. the “sh” sound in show, or they may have difficulty with auditory figure ground or the ability to tune out background sounds to hear the teacher speaking.
With ongoing changes in education due to shifting to virtual/distance learning as well as modifications to onsite learning environments, many students are at further risk of decreased performance because of these underlying communication challenges. Let’s look at 5 key strategies to help address these issues:
- For speech disorders such as not being understood or stuttering issues, be sure to include a reasonable wait time for a response from the student to reduce the stress of a timed response. You can also be sure to have alternative options for communication on hand, such as a portable dry erase board or a low-tech e-writer like a Boogie Board for the student to use to communicate answers.
- Continue with articulation skill practice remotely. If an option, your child’s Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) can help design a home program that would identify specific activities such as key lessons from the Super Duper ARtIC Lab Kit that can be used at home. And to reinforce skills with a game approach, try the Super Duper Wordy Wheels Electronic Spinner Game for Articulation.
- Students who have issues with pragmatic/social skills may have difficulty understanding non-verbal communication, which can be even more difficult remotely. Interpreting the tone of email or text messages and/or “reading” facial cues of happy, sad, angry, etc. may be more challenging. Using visual reinforcements for cues like emoticons for written formats or physical supports like Emotiblocks or Emotion Stones during screen time may help bridge the gap.
- Depending on the level of impairment, some students with auditory issues may benefit from closed captioning. Several online platforms have the accessibility option to add this. Invest in a good headset for students with auditory discrimination issues. Continued practice with minimal pairs cards for phonology is a great at-home strategy as decks can be individualized for key issues. Students with auditory figure ground issues will need a quiet work environment away from background sounds/devices (like a washer/dryer or HVAC unit) that may distract focus and attention.
- Students with speech and language challenges in general must put more effort into communication under normal circumstances. Interacting virtually then takes extra effort and can make some students vulnerable to screen fatigue. Be sure to switch up screen time with movement breaks, outdoor time, and/or create a sensory quiet space for periods of respite and retreat from the virtual world.
Simple adaptations in the virtual or modified classroom can help ensure success in this new paradigm shift of learning environments. Visit the American Speech & Hearing Association (ASHA) website for additional tips.
Cecilia Cruse, MS, OTR/L has a BS degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Florida, and her Master’s degree in Education from Georgia State University. She is SIPT certified and has over 25 years’ experience in pediatrics with school-based services, acute care, and outpatient pediatric settings.
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