July 31, 2009

Talking difficulties set stage for other disabilities in children

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Melanie Schuele, Ph.D.

Talking difficulties set stage for other disabilities in children

Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) now know that if a child has difficulty learning to speak then it may just be the tip of the iceberg for other issues in both language and literacy.

A new U.S. Department of Education grant is hoping to ease those concerns by training the next generation of speech-language pathology graduate students to work in schools as SLPs who understand that difficulties learning to talk can lead to difficulties learning to read for at least half of preschoolers.

The Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center will use the federal funding to provide specialized training to 20 master’s degree students in speech-language pathology over four years.

“Research-wise, in the last 20 years there has been much more to support the link between children who have difficulty learning to talk and children having difficulty learning to read,” said Melanie Schuele, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Vanderbilt Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences.

“It was often assumed that if you have difficulty learning to talk as a preschooler we will get you therapy and you’ll catch up and live happily ever after. But now we know that difficulty learning to talk sets the stage for a lifelong disability for a lot of children, probably at least half of the preschoolers who have difficulty learning to talk.”

Schuele said the grant provides training for students to go into schools other settings that serve children and work with special education teachers and regular education teachers to address children’s language and literacy.

In the school district, in terms of meeting children’s educational needs, it is not a matter of each professional knowing what to do but rather professionals knowing how to collaborate, she added.

Another piece of the grant will fund eight daylong expert workshops for students to learn about particular topics and also interact with teachers and SLPs from the community.

“Our goal is to use the resources from this training grant to not only give expertise to these 20 students but really provide some needed continuing education to people who are already out there in the field struggling with these complex problems,” Schuele said.

“I can see the plus for our students. The more contacts they have with people who currently work in the schools, the better idea they have of what the needs are in that job setting.”

Schuele, who worked in schools for four years after finishing her master’s degree, said it is routine for every school district to not be able to fill the positions for speech language pathology. When the positions aren’t filled, the workload increases for the persons who were hired.

“By federal law, school districts are not allowed to have waiting lists, so if they have 100 children who need services, but can only hire one speech pathologist, then the services are just diluted,” Schuele said.

“The funds from the U.S. Department of Education seek to minimize the shortage of SLPs working the schools and to better prepare SLPs to meet the complex language and literacy needs of school children.”