Field Trip: Kids With Speech and Language Service Needs


Serving students who need speech and language services looks different during a pandemic. So how can schools best work with these families?

Leanne Sherred is co-founder of Expressable, a company that provides online speech language therapy services. In this conversation, Leanne shares what she observes and insights about:

  • Why services for kids with speech and communication challenges are so crucial
  • The added struggles kids face during remote learning
  • What schools should keep in mind as they provide remote service delivery
  • How schools can work with parents and families of students receiving teletherapy to better set them up for success
  • Mental health challenges relating to communication and language issues


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Full Transcript  

LEANNE SHERRED: So communication on top of mental health, social wellbeing, things like that, it underlies almost everything that kids are going to do academically.

I think that can’t be overstated enough, how important family involvement is for any piece of education, but also very much in particular, speech and language.

That’s the feedback I hear most often is whether a school is communicating a lot or not communicating enough with the families.

Today, a conversation about how schools can work to support families of students who receive speech and language services, especially now and the tail end of 2020, when these services are often delivered remotely.

From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.

LEANNE SHERRED: My name’s Leanne Sherred. I’m a speech language pathologist.

Leanne helped cofound a company called

LEANNE SHERRED: We are a provider of online speech language therapy services. So in other words, telehealth, telepractice. So that’s, that’s where I currently am and that’s where I’ve been.

Today, we’re looking at how schools can be more effective in working with students who have challenges with speech and communication. It’s an area at Leanne says that’s really crucial for schools to get right.

LEANNE SHERRED: If we think about what communication does for kids, it’s crucial. It’s so fundamental. Obviously they are communicating well before they’re entering school and it has an impact and plays a role on not only their ability to tell their parents and their families when they’re hungry, when they have to go to the bathroom, but it’s these fundamental things for pre-literacy skills and literacy, reading comprehension, written language expression, and then looking towards even the mental health side of things, for children to be able to communicate how they’re feeling, why something makes them feel the way it does.

And then that in turn leads into social communication, their ability to socialize with their peers, form meaningful relationships with others, so communication on top of mental health, social wellbeing, things like that, it underlies almost everything that kids are going to do academically. That’s why speech and language falls under the umbrella of special education, because if a child is struggling with some area of that and it has an impact on their academics, then we catch that in the school and then we work to help support them, obviously, so they can access their education.

Take for example, a student in first grade with a speech sound disorder.

LEANNE SHERRED: They might have a lot of their academics on track, but maybe their teachers and their peers cannot understand what they’re saying, and they might start to get a little socially isolated. Peers might not want to spend time talking to them because they have a hard time understanding them. If the speech and language pathology team and the special education team is able to catch that and help support that child — and that’s a very common story. I’d say there’s not just one kiddo I’ve seen. Many, many, many kids who that’s their exact issue — we’re able to catch that, help them work on their overall intelligibility and then get them answering questions in class, participating. That’s going to help their reading skills, and I’ve seen that exact story time and time again.

If we miss it, then, again, because speech and language underlies so many of these academic skills, you’re likely to see kids continue to fall behind. They might start off a little bit behind and if we don’t support them in those areas, you’ll see it trickling into all their other academic areas.

So if they don’t have good speech intelligibility, phonological skills, when they’re getting set up to learn how to read with their teachers in instruction, they’re going to struggle and have a hard time. And if we don’t look at that from a speech and language angle, then we might be missing a crucial underlying piece and then see them fall farther and farther behind.

RYAN ESTES: Some of the ways to address students have language and communication issues might be obvious things like providing access to speech therapy and that kind of thing. But there are probably not so obvious things for schools, especially as they’re working with this population of students during this time, when some students may be learning at home while others are in the school. What are the kinds of things that are really important to highlight right now in 2020?

LEANNE SHERRED: Yeah, those differences might look different. And in some kids’ cases, they might be exacerbated by the way that they’re having to access the education at this point in time, from home, over technology. If one child has a receptive language disorder where comprehension is difficult, when things are conveyed with fewer visual cues in person, some of those nonverbal cues, they’re not able to see what we’re pointing to in the room, things like that, the way that you get that setting of the classroom, we might need to pay attention more to the wait time that we give them, the processing time, managing the whole classroom of students in order to help maybe just that one for a moment. So maybe building in a very clear system for turn-taking on some of those Zoom classrooms or whatever platform they’re using.

There’s probably been a big shift and it’s been going on for a while now in 2020, and I’m sure that teachers have come up with a lot of clever ways to manage these differences. But the way that an IEP looked and the supports that were given in the classroom might have needed to be adjusted for this setting, just because so many things are different.

And I think for the educators, it would be really helpful for general education classroom teachers to be really communicative right now with special education teachers about what they’re noticing, and then special education can help support the changes that might need to take place based on the fact that we’re all doing this remote.

Now, I’m a father with two kids at home: 9 and 12. And my family is all working from home, and learning from home, crammed into a house that seems way smaller than it did when we bought it. Thankfully, the support we get from our school district is impressive, but it’s still not easy. Even when kids are only doing regular coursework.

So from where she sits, I asked Leanne about how schools can work with parents and guardians and families whose students receive services like this.

LEANNE SHERRED: It can’t be overstated how important it is for families to be involved. I mean, teachers, educators obviously know that. And when we’re looking at the special education side of things, sometimes it can get a bit contentious, the minutes and getting down to all that legal nitty gritty.

The fact of the matter is that progress and outcomes will all be stronger when everyone is on the same page. I think that can’t be overstated enough, how important family involvement is for any piece of education, but also very much in particular, speech and language.

RYAN ESTES: So can you give some practical advice for how schools can better engage with families and caregivers in this area?

LEANNE SHERRED: Yeah, I think it’s a tough nut to crack, because like you already mentioned, everyone is busy right now. Everyone is dealing with a million spinning plates at once. When I think about it and you know, we don’t work directly with the schools, but when I think about what I would try to do is, I would try my best to meet families where they are, because in my practice, what I find is, I come back a lot to the idea of non-contingent help giving, which is where you wait for people to come to you or have that light bulb moment instead of shoving a bunch of stuff on their plate all at once. Because It’s just going to collapse down and none of it’s going to get done, versus if we’re able to help them piecemeal it, they’ll be a lot more able to jump on board and help out. So I think schools can work together with families by keeping pieces small and manageable. If we needto practice something at home, is there a way that we can make it take just five minutes instead of 30? Because those five minutes will actually get done. The 30 might not, especially right now, but that five minutes would have a major impact.

RYAN ESTES: Give me an example. I know that you work with families. Have you seen schools really do things excellently? And if so, what does that look like?

LEANNE SHERRED: I work a lot with families, and while we work outside of the school, the feedback that I hear a lot is, when there are a lot of open communication channels, there can be a lot of asynchronous communication. You don’t have to catch the parent on the phone, but there’s some piece of communication going back and forth or sometimes.

Children who receive speech therapy services might have a speech journal where the speech teacher jots a note down in the session with the child, and then the parent opens it up from the kid’s backpack. Obviously we’re not doing backpack passing right now, but this similar concept exists within things like Classroom Dojo.

That communication channel, having it open consistently, is I think when I hear parents respond the best to the services that they’re getting at school versus the moments where I hear, “Well, I hardly even know what they’re working on at school. I know that they get speech minutes, but oh, I think it’s once a week.” That’s when you know that the parents, at that point, they don’t even know enough right now to help, to be helpful. So the outcomes, again, are just not going to be as optimal as they could be.

Of course, sometimes it comes down to a resource issue, right? The time that’s available for the speech therapist is really crunched because they have a big, big caseload, but I think clever ways like Classroom Dojo can be really, really helpful in the long run.

I think that number one is the communication. I mean, we’re talking about communication for the kids, communication with the schools. I think even if it’s it’s little updates, if the schools can push those out to parents, I just think that goes a long way. And working outside of the school, like I said, that’s the feedback I hear most often, is whether a school is communicating a lot or not communicating enough with the families.

RYAN ESTES: Paint a picture a little bit more of the families that you’re working with right now. What does their day-to-day look like? What do you see kids struggling with that they might not otherwise? I’m sure that you have a better picture than a lot of people of what these families are going through.

LEANNE SHERRED: Yeah. It depends, some of those kids who are doing the blended learning, where they’re going in some days but then at home on others, their days look a lot, I think, like a jigsaw puzzle, because parents are maybe also working from home and they’re trying to arrange their schedule for these things based on a work schedule and a blended learning schedule.

So I think, again, that time crunch is a big obstacle that’s happening right now for families. On the other hand, I think some things that are helpful right now are the breaks that might exist in the day for the kids. So they might do a chunk of learning in the morning online, and then they have a gap and then they might do some other learning later in the afternoon. I see that as effective for the kids, when I’m working with my kids, they might come to my session a little bit renewed if they had a moment to go outside, the same way that they might at recess.

So, I think overall, sadly the word would still probably be hectic. How does their day look? Probably pretty hectic. I think this, now that we’re into the fall again, the new school year, it seems a lot more settled than at the end of the last school year in the spring.

RYAN ESTES: Well, I want to ask you about that too, because I know that right now, in general, in schools we’re dealing with all kinds of issues that we didn’t a year ago, just like there are concerns about COVID slide and academic challenges as a result of the pandemic. We are probably also seeing setbacks in this area as well.

LEANNE SHERRED: Yes, definitely.

RYAN ESTES: What does that look like?

LEANNE SHERRED: Well, like we mentioned, because the way that IEP is written for special education services, they are narrowed down to the setting, right? Is the service happening in the speech room? Is it happening in the classroom? How many minutes? Well, that setting is totally out the window. They’re not in the speech room or the classroom. So the goals that were written might not be the same. So I think that special education services were probably knocked backwards by having to go back to IEP and re-agree with families on what was going to be done, how it was going to be done. So that time playing catch up there, I think — again, I wasn’t there, but I would have to imagine that it probably fell backwards.

RYAN ESTES: Can you speak at all to any of the mental health challenges that might be flaring up, specifically as they relate to communication and language?

LEANNE SHERRED: Yeah, I have a lot of families, contacting us reporting some increases in stuttering. That’s kind of a big one that’s happening. When any kind of big life event happens, we might see kids who stutter have a flareup. And I think right now the stress that’s been going on, we might see more cases emerging.

They might be cases that end up petering out, hopefully, once things settle, but it’s something that makes families nervous. So they might be reaching out a lot about that, and I think in general, the socialization, that’s pretty tough on kids right now. The fact that they don’t have that time together with their peers in face-to-face interaction, playing together, just hanging out, not needing to necessarily be working on academics. I would be really curious to see what creative ways teachers might be folding in that socialization into their education time, because that time together on the remote classroom might be the only time that some kids are seeing their peers right now.

RYAN ESTES: So let’s talk about teletherapy and other remote service delivery. What do you think, from your vantage point as someone who is not working in a school, but who works with these families, what can schools do to better set students up for success?

LEANNE SHERRED: I think getting on the right kind of platforms is helpful. The easier the platform is to use, the more streamlined it’s going to be for parents to get everyone logged on on time, have them set up. Can the student navigate things independently or does a parent have to be there the whole time with them?

So I think getting on the right platforms, educators having things pretty organized, taking that time to organize everything digitally, if that’s the way that we have to convey those pieces of information. And then again, the continual dissemination of information to the families, if there’s something that every family will need to know about how to access or any changes or updates in the virtual learning that’s happening, making sure it reaches everyone so that they don’t fall behind and get lost in the shuffle.

What would I like to tell schools? Gosh, I think that I would first say “kudos.” I think all the educators, the administrative people who have had to make these rapid changes, should take a deep breath and pat themselves on the back, because I know that everyone has been working in earnest very, very hard to get access to every kid who needs it and keep things going as smoothly as possible.

And that’s a Herculean effort.  I think stay creative and stay  open-minded to things. At the top of the year, it was a big scramble where everyone kind of dreaded the online learning. And I think there are definitely, probably still people out there who dread it on a regular basis, but I think it also opens up some interesting windows of opportunity.

RYAN ESTES: Well, Leanne Sherred is a speech language pathologist. She is co-founder of Leanne. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak

LEANNE SHERRED: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.

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Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education. Frontline is the leading provider of school administrative software, with solutions like Frontline Service Management, designed to help you easily take care of service scheduling, and documentation, so you can focus on student success. For more information, visit

For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.