"If you don't succeed at first...find some new batteries." This quote is from a first-grade student in Vermont, where ASHA President Patty Prelock lives and works. A local first-grade teacher wanted to test her students' concepts of common proverbs, so she gave each child in her class the first half of a proverb and asked them to come up with the remainder. While there were several amusing interpretations of popular sayings ("Don't bite the hand that ... looks dirty," "A penny saved is ... not much"), the last one resonated with the audience of more than 1,100 gathered at the opening plenary of ASHA's 2013 Schools Conference in Long Beach, Calif. The theme of the conference was to improve the lives of the students ASHA school members work with every day, one story at a time. But, as Prelock and several other presenters pointed out over the course of three days, that takes tremendous energy, dedication, and skills that are particular to speech-language pathologists.
"You as an SLP are charged with finding the connecting points with your students," said keynote speaker Murray Banks, who was once named the Teacher of the Year in Vermont and is a recipient of the Outstanding Educator Award from the American Alliance for Health, Physical Recreation and Dance. "How many of you work with children who have been discarded in one way or another? Connecting with them can take enormous energy, but you do it. Each day you remember to look in the mirror and tell yourself, 'It's show time!'"
Autism spectrum disorder
And the presenters took that to heart, too. Each session was filled with energy and anticipation. In Sylvia Diehl's presentation on autism spectrum disorder and executive function, the audience learned about the importance of visual cues, the effects of executive function on communication, and why "visual supports are the bomb!" She explained how visual prompts are more effective with students with ASD because the visual prompts are more permanent that verbal cues and are, therefore, more easily referenced if the student needs reminders or didn't understand the instructions the first time. "If you verbally tell a student to turn on the water, use soap, rinse his hands and dry his hands each time when he's 9 years old, you'll be telling him the same thing when he's 90. You need to give him visual, not verbal, cues."
The Common Core strikes again
Once again the Common Core State Standards, featured in two sessions, were a popular topic. Judy Rudebusch helped attendees to analyze the CCSS and determine instructional language targets; Judy Montgomery helped her standing-room-only audience (moved to a larger room due to overflow) recognize and use vocabulary strategies to reach the CCSS goals.
Other popular topic areas were how to use apps to enhance student engagement and to target specific goals like expository writing. Attendees were rapt with Vivian Siskin's session on avoidance reduction therapy for children who stutter; others clamored to see Bonnie Singer's instructional strategies for academic writing. Expository writing, as Singer said, is tough because many times kids are taught the broken-down process of prewriting, and that's where students with language disorders really need it spelled out for them. "One of the biggest disservices we do to our kids is to show them perfect writing-the end product-but not how it got to be that way. It causes anxiety," she told the audience.
Anastasia Antoniadis' session on environmental toxins that cause or exacerbate learning and behavior disorders attracted a robust crowd that learned, among other facts, that there are 140 pesticides that the Environmental Protection Agency considers to be neurotoxic. She explained that these toxins, along with thousands of other chemicals, are in schools and homes and have an effect on development and behavior in the children SLPs treat.
"I like to tell people that our bodies are the piano and the environment is the pianist," she explained. "You can have a beautiful piano, but if you put an unskilled pianist at the keyboard, it isn't going to sound good."
Conference participants later had the opportunities to engage with most of the presenters during roundtable discussions, and many connected to continue conversations beyond the conference.
From good to great
Wayne Secord presented the results of a questionnaire that had been presented to each state's top two speech-language pathologists (each state determined the qualifications and chose SLP from the schools and one from health care). The idea was for the answers to this questionnaire to illuminate what sets these great SLPs apart. According to the results, the top 10 characteristics shared by SLPs deemed excellent by their peers are:
10. They remember their priorities.
9. They aren't afraid to take risks.
8. They try difficult things.
7. They understand change and they understand change is hard.
6. They achieve situational mastery (knowing the system in which they work).
5. They do a few things well-really well.
4. They always have an academic endpoint in mind for everything they do.
3. They learn crossover knowledge from general education teachers and other team members.
2. They truly believe in teamwork and collaboration.
1. They listen-all the time.
"When you think about these characteristics it seems so obvious," Secord said. "But to truly embrace all of them takes a very special person."
Recharged and ready to go
After three days of listening, learning, and absorbing the good vibes inherent to the southern California location, conference attendees were recharged with knowledge and ready for the upcoming school year. They devised new lesson plans, set new goals, and formed new perspectives on the place of SLPs in the school setting. Better yet, in the words of a very wise first-grader, they all found their new batteries. But, Murray said in the close of his speech, the trick is to sustain that energy all year 'round.
"In August you're ready, but it's January that's the problem, right?" he asked as the audience nodded their heads in agreement. "But that's what's going to set you, the SLP, apart. You need to fire on all cylinders at 95 percent efficiency all day, every day. Remember, it's show time!"