As a speech pathologist working in an elementary school, don’t you feel like sometimes you can barely keep your head above water? Like some days you are literally “flying by the seat of your pants”, having had absolutely no time to prepare for students because you were busy writing IEP’s? And then you keep finding notes from teachers in your mailbox, asking could you check on this student, could you listen to this student, I can’t understand this student at all, etc. Right—“I’ll fit that in during my spare time!” Well, when I started last year at a K-5 school, I was finding some note (or a filled out form called, “Request for Assistance” that the district uses) on almost a daily basis. It was crazy! The majority of these referrals were from the kindergarten teachers. I had to somehow stem the tides!
I had done some RTI groups in prior years, within another district, where I worked for 10 years. I wondered if that would be enough to appease teachers and deal with these copious referrals. It was the beginning of the school year and I was already feeling swamped by dealing with overdue IEP’s, learning a new IEP software system, locating students (the previous SLP took “going paperless” literally and did not create files for new students), and putting a schedule together. But I thought if I spent just a little time structuring a kinder RTI group, it would at least buy me some time in the long run, and help to weed out students not needing testing.
I met with the three kinder teachers, and they thought it was a great idea! I asked them to each refer three students; they could be “at risk” for articulation concerns, extremely low academics, limited language, or stuttering. Parents were sent home a permission letter describing the program, and were asked to give written consent to have their child participate. [When RTI was discussed at district SLP meetings, it was always stressed that we still need parents’ signatures, and to state in the letter going home, that RTI is a general ed. function and children are not on an IEP.] In the permission packet, I also included a sound acquisition chart, and a handout of suggestions on ways to enrich language in the home. I finally began the groups in December. Each child had a folder we kept in the speech room, and there would be a work page where we would address either rhyming, sound/letter ID, or another aspect of phonemic awareness. That helped me to hear how the kids sounded, and get an idea of their expressive language and ability to follow directions. It did add about two hours of work per week, but I felt more in control, as I could get to know the students at risk, and they were in turn getting support.
We continued the program into May. Of the nine kinders in last year’s RTI program, four warranted speech assessments. All four qualified for services. A fifth student, who was tested upon parents’ request, did not qualify. Two students were put on a “watch” list for next year.
This year, I started seeing my RTI groups earlier in the year; this way I could end the program in the spring, when normally it gets really busy with referrals. We again had nine students; I stopped the program end of Feb. At that time, I had tested one of the kids (qualified, placed directly in SDC Kinder), and was in the process of testing two more. They have since qualified: one for articulation, one for stuttering.
I have had positive responses from parents. One parent emailed me several times, asking for more information, and what I thought about her son’s speech. She had been worried, and did not know about later-learned sounds. I had another parent come up to me and say how much they appreciated the handout I sent home about stuttering. They had not realized how fast they were talking and not allowing her many opportunities speak. The mom said as soon as they started paying attention to how they sounded, and started being “better listeners” to their daughter, her dysfluency stopped right away (we have to celebrate those easy-fixes!).
San Diego School District is probably the front-runner of speech RTI programs. It is so organized in that district, that there are people specifically hired to coordinate it, run copies, and distribute material to SLP’s. I wish more districts would embrace the RTI concept. I think the general perception is that it creates more work. However, I disagree. It takes a lot less time than testing, writing a report, writing an IEP, and holding a meeting. Right now I have two-second graders working on vocalic “R”, that I have in speech RTI. You know how parents and teachers will say, “I can’t understand anything he says” and you find out it’s only the vocalic “R” that is distorted? Technically those students do not even qualify for services. Two parents had emailed their child’s teacher with speech concerns, “requesting testing”. After listening to each one in the classroom, and realizing it was only the one sound (and in only one position), I sent home permission letters for RTI. Parents had to write a note rescinding their request; they seemed happy to accept RTI. Those two students, by the way, are almost error-free now, and are among my most motivated students.
By: Alexis Thorpe, M.A., CCC-SLP