Improved speech, language services targeted

Peggy Revell

All junior kindergarten students in the Rainy River District School Board have undergone speech language and literacy screenings as part of a pilot project that’s been up and running since late August.
The screening stems from a multi-agency initiative that aims to improve access to speech and language services, Ann Anderson, speech language pathologist with the local public school board, explained at the monthly board meeting on Nov. 1.
The push comes as the Ontario government found that families often had difficulty accessing these services due to “a lot of wait lists, duplication of services, and many agencies providing the service,” said Anderson, who noted that the ministries of education, children and youth services, and health and long-term care all are involved in some way at providing speech language services in the province.
“It was very confusing for parents and families to access the service,” Anderson stressed, adding that even as service providers, there sometimes is confusion over who is mandated for what.
As such, Anderson said the province was looking for pilot projects that would create better access, quality service and value, and cost-effectiveness.
The RRDSB, with partners including the North Words program of the Northwestern Health Unit, the Community Care Access Centre, and Riverside Health Care Facilities, Inc., were selected as one of six sites in the province to run pilot programs.
One of the first things the local pilot did, said Anderson, was look to see what could be done to ensure “seamless transition” for families as children move from pre-school to school, and “so that every family and child has to knock on one door” to get assistance.
An early-learning speech language pathologist position was created with the RRDSB—a position filled by Lana Oster, who has worked with the North Words program through the health unit for 12 years
Since starting in late August, Oster has taken over the JK, SK, and Grade 1 speech and language “caseload,” including the JK speech language and literacy screening.
“We’ve screened all the kids throughout the district,” she noted.
“And with that screen, we’ve developed some nice profiles for the JK teacher to kind of better identify where their children are at in terms of speech language and literacy needs, which can help guide their programming,” she added.
In the upcoming months, Oster said the plan is to get into the classrooms a lot more and working with the early-learning teachers to provide supports within the classroom “in terms of speech language and play-based learning.”
“Which will really fit in nicely with the context of the early-learning curriculum,” she reasoned.
Prior to this project, the local public school board did an SK screening for literacy, numeracy, and speech and oral language, and worked with the Reading Recovery program with first-graders, Anderson noted.
“The missing link was JK­­­,” she remarked. “We were never responsible for JK before. It was a pre-school service.”
But the roll-out of the full-day early-learning program also meant this age group wouldn’t be able to access some of these pre-school services because they would be in school all day, said Anderson.
Having schools taking on the JK part of the proposal, they have alleviated “some of the stress that has gone on in the other agencies,” she explained.
“[So] the pre-school initiative is really focusing on birth to [age] three, and doing a lot of prevention programs and getting the children younger than what they have been,” she added.
Improved communication
Anderson said another component of the project is to make sure all the partnering agencies have time to work together, including monthly meetings and improving communications and resource-sharing.
“We share resources, we share space, we’re trying to make things much easier for children and families to get the services that they need where they need it and in a timely manner,” she stressed.
“We’re trying to create a common referral and consent so that parents aren’t signing consents three and four times once they move through different stages of their child’s speech and language development.”
They’re also looking next to improve communication between the various community partners with the project and to engage parents.
“As the full-day early learning is rolled out throughout the district, I think it’s really crucial to have that parenting component,” Oster stressed, noting she hopes to carry forward ideas from her past experience working closely with parents in the pre-school system.
Aboriginal component
As one of the next steps in the project, Oster said they’re looking to involve an aboriginal component.
“I’ve built some previous relationships with the Aboriginal ‘Head Start’ program, and we’re looking at developing some ideas and programming to make it more culturally-sensitive intervention methods,” she remarked, noting these possibly could include some story-telling with First Nation members and “tie that over into the students doing some oral language story-telling.”
There also is a need to create more culturally-sensitive assessments of students, Anderson admitted.
“Of the caseload that I have, which is about 170 right across the board, 35 percent are aboriginal,” she noted, adding that upon doing some research, she feels the assessments are not necessarily culturally-sensitive to aboriginal children.
For example, some aboriginal students have an Ojibwe dialect of English, Anderson said.
“Their first language is not Ojibwe, but they are being influenced [by the kind] of language that’s being spoken at home,” she explained.
“So we’re misdiagnosing children sometimes. So we need to get better tools to then provide better intervention.”
Reaching out to First Nation parents and families also is an area that needs to be improved upon, agreed Oster.
Parents want to be involved, she insisted, but in conversations with teachers at Mine Centre School, they have said a lack of transportation has been an issue for these parents to becoming involved.
The pre-school system had tried to do home visits and access families where possible—such as through the Aboriginal “Head Start” program, the library, toy library, and “Best Start” hubs, noted Anderson.
“They’re trying to go to places where children and families are, but we need to do better at that,” she conceded, saying one possibility is using some of the pilot project’s funding towards transportation.
“It’s always been a challenge, but I think as part of our collaborative, we’re really going to try to brainstorm ideas this year of ways to do that,” said Oster.