Association News

Published on June 17th, 2019


Professional Insights: Working as a School-Based S-LP (Sarah)

The role of a school-based speech-language pathologist is broad and varies from school to school. However, there is one thing that everyone can agree upon: students benefit from speech-language pathology services!

S-LPs work with students to reach their full communication potential. This, in turn, helps students succeed throughout the day – from making friends, to engaging with their lessons, to growing as an individual.

To explore the work of school-based S-LPs, we asked some of our members to share their experiences working in a school setting.

Today, we hear from Sarah Dowling.

To access all articles of this series, please click here.


Describe your work setting.

I work in School District 57 in Prince George, in Northern BC. We have a large urban area (about 80,000 population) with two rural areas (one is 2 hours drive to the north, the other is 4 hours away near the Rocky Mountains) and a few surrounding rural schools. There are 13,000 students in total enrolled. We have eight full-time speech-language pathologists. This year we added three educational assistants to the speech and language team to support the S-LPs with direct intervention, tablets and preparation. Although this required a great deal of work at the beginning of the school year, we feel that this has benefited the service we provide.

Approximately how many students do you work with over the course of the school year?

I now work 3 days a week. Last year, I provided services to about 15 students. This has increased to more than 20 students on my caseload. I have been able to see up to four students for regular therapy so far this year, but most of my services are consultative and collaborative. I also work in one elementary school where I work with between five to ten students throughout the year, whether directly and/or in collaboration with school staff. The latter usually involves observation preceded and followed by meetings with the class and resource teacher.

Can you tell us something unique about your position?

I recently became the S-LP for all of the high schools in our school district, as we redesign how we offer services. This began with a pilot project to support one high school with problem-solving how to provide services for our students with high-functioning autism (HFA), and some joint work with our provincial program for students with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) who are based in our school district.

I now offer a service to any student who is referred through the school-based team for each high school. This includes the whole range of students from eye gaze technology to stuttering. I have a particular interest in HFA and supporting schools with being creative about how to develop social communication intervention for these students who are usually doing a full curriculum. I have presented at our regional teachers conference on this topic.

Our services are provided within a problem-solving tiered model. I work at all levels but direct work with the students has to come through the school-based team referral process for both elementary and high schools. The goal is that the high school principals and other team members have knowledge of who is receiving S-LP services within their building. I feel that I am developing a clearer role with my own specialist colleagues, as well school-based staff.

What does an average day look like?

I usually spend a whole day in one school. For the elementary school, I spend 2-3 days per month in the building and the other days doing prep or report writing for them. I usually assess one of the students with autism in the morning through observation, or more formally for a work-up to an ASD diagnostic assessment, and I work with children with speech problems in the afternoon. I may meet with teachers at lunch or during the day to problem-solve how best to support a student in their class, or to provide some direct support with, for example, social stories.

Once a month we have a team meeting with the S-LP, school psychologist and mental health specialist supporting the school team with specific students. We may take referrals at this meeting, as well as at IEP meetings and planned workload consultation meetings with the school about two to three times per year.

When I work in one of the high schools to provide support around programming for a specific student, I spend the whole day there. Usually, I meet with parents for paperwork and an interview. Then I observe and assess the student. For example, to support the use of TouchChat I would observe the student’s use and also set up some specific assessment situations. I may do programming revisions and make recommendations. I meet with the school team and parents after school to share my findings and to brainstorm ideas. I will do a follow-up visit if time allows.

I have also allocated one day per week to see students for individual therapy which is a new treat for me! This includes a student learning to use eye gaze with a tablet, and working with a mental health specialist to support a student with social anxiety.

How does your role fit in the day of a student?

I am enjoying working directly with the high school students with HFA and developing their individual education plan (IEP) with them and the school team. It has been exciting to work out how to meet their goals within the constraints of the typical school day and educate the students about what they need to work on and how they could be supported.

I am seeing some of our resource teachers become competent and imaginative users of AAC. That is directly impacting the student as they increase their confidence in communicating. I hope that I am advocating strongly for the students and that I have an indirect effect on their day.

What is the best part of your job?

Working with the high school staff and helping them to be creative. Teachers are amazing – if you believe in them great things can happen. It is great to hear about the wonderful programming teachers have put in place for our students with severe cognitive disabilities after just one day of providing service to them. I feel that often I am providing permission and an example of how to be creative with evidence-based ideas, rather than telling them what they must do. This then allows them to explore the possibilities within their classroom or program.

Also, speaking with principals and vice-principals and the influencers in a building, trying to open hearts and minds to our students with communications needs so that they may start to design intervention for them within their system.

What is one of the most challenging parts of your job?

Trying not fall into “the expert model” but using my specialist skills and knowledge to empower and enthuse others. One way to ensure this is to listen properly to what is needed by the schools. This involves me asking the right questions in a safe way so teachers feel comfortable admitting what they really need from me. Another aspect of this is being clear about what I can offer, when and for how long. I may provide resources for them to review, or suggest best practice ideas and demonstrate out the box thinking. The next step, though, is to tease out what that could look like in their setting for that specific student. In that way, ideas are more likely to be implemented.

The Takeaway: What do you want people to know about your job as a school-based S-LP?

Yes, school districts can be busy, complex, and challenging – but that is why I like them. Advocating for more S-LPs  has gradually paid off in our school district and I encourage others to keep trying to increase their profile within their organization. The job satisfaction for me is in helping other professionals within the system have a new lens on students with speech, language and communications needs. I feel that the most important aspect to my job is building positive relationships, trusting teachers to do the right thing and more, and always seeking some new possibility despite some of the systemic constraints.

About Sarah Dowling

Sarah Dowling is originally from the UK where she worked for 20 years in a range of jobs in the north of England and southern Scotland. She specialized in students with DLD, Aspergers and severe speech disorders.

Since immigrating to Prince George with her husband in 2003, Sarah has become a generalist S-LP and provides service to the Aboriginal Choice School. She also teaches a sessional course in the Masters of Education program at the University of Northern British Columbia. She is currently a member of the SAC ad hoc committee that is developing a position paper on speech-language pathology service delivery models in schools.

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