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Preschools for autism and hearing loss adapt to virtual learning

May. 21, 2020, 9:55 AM

Daniel Shaw, MS, BS, SLP, a speech-language pathologist, leads families in the Preschool for Children with Autism through a virtual sing-along via videoconference.
Daniel Shaw, MS, BS, SLP, a speech-language pathologist, leads families in the Preschool for Children with Autism through a virtual sing-along via videoconference. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

by Kelsey Herbers

As social distancing mandates have been implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many teachers have relied on creativity to continue providing educational opportunities for their students. The Mama Lere Hearing School (MLHS) and the Preschool for Children with Autism (PCA) — both of which are run by staff in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center — are no exception.

The MLHS enrolls about 30 students ages 3-5 with hearing loss and peers with typical hearing and focuses on speech, auditory and language skills.

“For children with hearing loss the critical age for maximum potential language learning is between 0 to 5 years. This is a crucial time for them,” said Leena Varma, MED, CED, a teacher with the MLHS program.

To help families settle into distance learning, the MLHS staff created a suggested schedule of daily activities in 30- and 60-minute increments from when a child wakes up until bedtime. They also distributed a list of activities that target different skills on which the children have been working, such as fine motor skills and phonological awareness, to continue a routine of building those skills at home.

Students in the Mama Lere Hearing School have made their own at-home calendar boards to routinely discuss the days of the week, the weather and the day’s schedule — all of which are typical discussions in their morning meeting with peers.
Students in the Mama Lere Hearing School have made their own at-home calendar boards to routinely discuss the days of the week, the weather and the day’s schedule — all of which are typical discussions in their morning meeting with peers.

“I’m a mom, so I know it is hard not to have a schedule, especially when you have a 3 to 5-year-old,” said Varma. “If a parent is working from home, it’s easy to let your child watch TV for several hours, and we don’t want that to happen.”

Many of the students are also receiving individual teletherapy sessions via Zoom, and occasional group Zoom activities allow the children to still participate in fun activities with their peers. The teachers hosted a group Easter egg dying session and a virtual zoo “field trip” that allowed the children to learn about different animals with the help of YouTube videos.

While families and their teachers are grateful to continue their lessons, the virtual format has created challenges, as each child has individualized goals and family situations vary. Some families have language barriers or don’t have internet access, while others may have Zoom meetings of their own for work during the day, leaving their schedules inflexible.

The use of a computer can also be distracting for young children who have short attention spans, and trying to communicate with children with hearing loss via videoconference can make it more difficult for them to listen and process what they’re hearing.

“We’re learning as we go, but we’re making the best of a difficult situation,” said Varma.

The PCA program, which enrolls 20 children with autism between the ages of 18 months to 5 years, has also adjusted to a virtual curriculum with individual teletherapy, parent education sessions and group activities. Classes are led by speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and focus primarily on communication and social interaction.

Speech pathologist Madeline Vulanich, MS, participates in a live sing-along session for all families and children enrolled in the Bill Wilkerson Center's Preschool for Children with Autism.
Speech pathologist Madeline Vulanich, MS, participates in a live sing-along session for all families and children enrolled in the Bill Wilkerson Center’s Preschool for Children with Autism. (Erin O. Smith)

To provide at-home structure for continued learning, the teachers send home a “tip of the week” based on strategies families may need most during this time. Weekly lessons are then planned around the tips, and families are given an activity related to each strategy to practice at home.

On April 30, the teachers hosted a virtual family sing-along that welcomed all 20 families enrolled. The teachers sent home lyrics in advance to songs already familiar to the children, and families sang together as an SLP led the session.

While adjusting to videoconference interactions took time, many of the children are now doing well and seem to enjoy it, said Renee Ingle, MS, CCC-SLP, coordinator of curriculum/instruction and parent education for the PCA program.

“The children were so excited to see each other for their virtual ‘circle time.’ They greeted each other by name, and even the children who are usually less engaged were very aware,” said Ingle.

“One of the children got upset when a peer left the videoconference, and one of her other peers calmed her down. They have these wonderful little interactions with each other even though they aren’t face-to-face.”

While its preschool classrooms are empty, the MLHS is providing child care services to preschool-age children of VUMC employees who continue to work as community day cares remain closed. The program is currently assisting six children.

“The staff of our preschool programs have been amazing in their creativity to serve their students remotely the past couple of months,” said Anne Marie Tharpe, PhD, chair of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences and associate director of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center.

“Their concern for our little students has resulted in unique ways of keeping them connected with their friends and continuing to enhance their communication abilities.”

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