Name: Chistopher Spiel, CCC-SLP
Title: SLP, Plainfield East High School
Location: Plainfield, Ill.
Plainfield East High School, right outside of Chicago, has a lot going on—1,800 students, a large number of students who are not English-speakers, and a sizable number of students in special education who need comprehensive speech-language services. What could be a recipe for frustration—too much work with too few resources—is saved by one other thing Plainfield has going on: Christopher Spiel.
At age 30—young enough to have boundless energy but old enough to have some experience—this speech-language pathologist has implemented an ambitious peer communication group that focuses on building social skills. He recruits carefully vetted general education students and matches them with students in special education; the pairs meet twice a week to learn teenage social etiquette. Taking the program a step further, Spiel also has created "Hang Time," an after-school social club where students gather to play kickball, make gingerbread houses, or do other activities that give the students an opportunity to practice their skills in a less-structured setting.
"You can see right away that the students in special education would much rather take social pointers from their peers than adults," Spiel said. "Some of the things adults tell them might be expected, but still are not done in certain circumstances, so having the peer helpers decipher the unwritten rules is such a blessing."
An equally notable aspect of the program is that it's being run solely by Spiel, who also provides most of the program's funding. Supplies, snacks, and most of all, energy and enthusiasm, come from him. But that's just par for the course for this young SLP. Spiel's mother was a big proponent of volunteering when he was growing up in Tinley Park, Ill., and he developed a taste for it early. In high school, for example, he spent more than 1,000 hours in community volunteer service.
"It's just so nice to make a difference in people's lives," he said. "I've found that it doesn't even need to be a big gesture to mean something. I love volunteering." In fact, volunteering led Spiel to his career. He enjoyed helping an SLP when he volunteered at a local elementary school, and when he began a teaching internship program in high school, he asked to be paired with an SLP.
That experience served as his launch pad. He graduated from Governors State University with a master's degree in speech-language pathology and educational administration. In a subsequent internship at Homewood Flossmoor High School he first experienced a peer program in action. The SLP he worked with, Patty Boyd, and the school's social worker, Tammy Green, had created a wildly successful peer intervention program that blended students in special education with typical peers.
At Plainfield East, Spiel quickly realized the limitations of the traditional one-on-one model of speech-language treatment. Having seen the success of a peer program, he knew he had to make some changes—and fast. He approached the administration with his proposal, received approval, used his weekends and breaks to get it organized, and launched the program in the winter of 2010.
"I can't tell you how many parents I've talked to who were just beside themselves because their kids didn't have an after-school program where they could practice social skills without being bullied," Spiel said. "So many of them would go home, watch TV, and not interact with anybody. Now, with Hang Time, they have a place to go with their peers, and they're learning and making progress. It's a win for everybody."
And it's not only the students in special education who are benefitting from Spiel's tireless energy—the general education students are getting a taste of what working as a speech-language pathologist is all about. And that could be a good thing.
"Right now some of my general education students who serve as peers are naturals when it comes to working with special education students, and have asked me about being a speech-language pathologist," he said. "So we'll see what happens."
For more information about the original Peer Communication Program, contact Patty Boyd at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tammy Green at email@example.com. Contact Chris Spiel at firstname.lastname@example.org.