Referrals increase for speech and language supports: RRDSB

By Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

This year to date, the Rainy River District School Board (RRDSB) has received 113 new referrals for their speech and language support and programming, a number much higher than in previous years.

At the school board meeting on May 2, Lonna Oster, speech-language pathologist (SLP) at RRDSB, said she attributes the increase in referrals to the additional screening completed this year.

The board saw around 80 students referred around this time last year. “So 33 students more is pretty significant,” Oster said.

Supports are offered to students in junior kindergarten (JK) through to high school. Assessments and treatment plans are provided by the SLPs, while interventions are provided by both the SLPs and communication assistant in the school.

Currently, programming is delivered by the RRDSB speech-language pathologist, a contracted virtual SLP from TinyEYE, and 13 school-based communication assistants.

Once consent is received from parents, a speech and language assessment is completed, then the SLP prescribes goals and develops a plan. “I travel to the schools regularly, checking on the students to see how the schools are doing with the progress and re-evaluate when needed,” Oster said.

All students in JK are screened in January, whereas students in senior kindergarten are screened in the fall.

“We’re really looking at those early literacy skills,” Oster said. “Then we share those results with the teacher so they can have an overall picture of some of those beginning literacy skills. The screenings are done by the communication assistants in the schools, and then they pass on the results to me, and then I share that data with with the teachers.”

Most of the referrals have been found in students in JK and were noted by educators, but the board has also received a large portion of referrals from partner agencies. In general, referrals are received from educators, parents and guardians, as well as from other health professionals and community partners.

In preparation for a new school year, the board and partnering agencies met together to plan services for the coming fall.

Some of the partner agencies that students may also be recommended to include the North Words Preschool Speech and Language Program, the Giishkaandago’Ikwe Child’s First Initiative, Weechi-it-te-win Family Health Services, or Firefly School-Based Rehabilitation Services.

Providing a brief look at the current case load, the speech and language program currently serves a board-wide caseload of about 305 students.

Approximately 15 students are waiting for intervention, and 38 students are receiving support from TinyEYE virtual services offering online therapy for schools.

The access to virtual services depends on the needs of the school. Currently, Robert Moore, J.W. Walker, North Star, and Mine Centre schools needed additional support from TinyEYE because the case load was too big for the number of communication assistants available.

Oster said weekly virtual therapy sessions have been helpful for older students in high school who are more independent. “This has been a really nice addition. And it’s been going well,” she said.

Giving an overview of current service models, Oster explained that speech and language supports help students progress in all aspects of learning and social life at school.

Noting the variety of speech and language difficulties, Oster said that speech disorders affect a person’s ability to produce sounds that create words, whereas those with language disorders or delays may have difficulty understanding language, following classroom instruction, understanding vocabulary, telling stories, or even making new friends.

She added that they have also worked with students who require augmentative or alternative communication, prescribed devices that help them with communication when nonverbal or minimally verbal.

“We’ve been also working pretty closely with the literacy leads this year, because as you know, the foundation of literacy is language. So our students that are coming in with language delays, we’re providing that support so that they can succeed with their later literacy skills,” said Oster.

The board has been focusing on working closely with parents to support the student’s speech and language development, a collaborative approach using send-home videos so that the parents can support their child’s therapy at home.

Seeing a communication assistant for a brief amount of time during the school week may not lend to much progress, Oster said, emphasizing how important it is that parents try and encourage speech and language development at home.

Oster said parents are always invited to attend the session with their child and the communication assistant, “to be a part of it,” however, she says she understands that many parents are busy.