Fresh out of graduate school, I was eager to begin my clinical fellowship and felt that I had acquired a strong foundation of clinical skills. I was well-equipped to put my diagnostic and excessively detailed clinical writing to work. I was confident that I could apply evidence-based research to formulate an intervention plan, create goals, and provide therapy. I accepted a clinical fellowship position at a charter school, located in the Bronx, New York, where I would be expected to serve bilingual English-Spanish speaking children in grades K-8. Initially I believed I would be able to stroll in, conduct my sessions, complete my paperwork, and my job would be done by 3:31pm.
To be honest, I could have taken that route; no one would have told me differently. However, while working with the bilingual population, I begin to realize that unknowingly my role as an SLP quickly evolved. I found myself wearing different hats, and in some instances, more than one at a time! I became the teacher, the advocate, the guide, the mentor, the counselor, and the confidant. During my first year practicing as a bilingual clinician, in the school setting, I adopted several practices that continue to help me develop skills as a clinician, and equally important, as an advocate. I cannot deny that a great portion of the learning process did not come from the textbooks, case studies, or the group projects during graduate school; instead, they stemmed from the day-to-day experience at the school where I was working. Throughout this journey, there have been several lessons that have guided me in refining who I am as a clinician and how to further develop the quality of services that I provide within the school setting.
The IEP will not always provide the most authentic representation of the child:
- Although it may be time consuming, it’s very valuable to thoroughly read the child’s IEP. During the first two months, my caseload increased significantly, taking me several weeks to thoroughly read and analyze all the IEPs. However, this task allowed me to visualize the child and gave me a blueprint of how I should reassess to determine their current skills. In the end, every single child’s goals were modified in some manner and I felt confident that I was providing the most appropriate services.
Maintain effective communication with caregivers:
- Establish a trusting relationship with the families. Families may feel helpless and seek your expertise and assistance to improve their child’s quality of life. At times, parents may establish a stronger relationship with you than their classroom teachers, if you speak their native language.
- Send short notes home, discussing the child’s progress, or be willing to make a quick phone call to check in. Staying up to date with your student’s families can increase their engagement in their child’s learning at school.
Advocate! Advocate! Advocate!
- You are a competent and qualified clinician; utilize information from informal and dynamic assessment to advocate for the children you serve!
- Identify when there is a language disorder vs. a language difference. It is common for children to be overrepresented within special education when their language difference is mistaken for a disorder. If a child truly has a language disorder, it will occur in every language spoken.
- Use your dynamic assessment data and your clinical judgment to modify services when necessary or to advocate for dismissal of services is speech-language therapy is not warranted.
Breathe and enjoy the experience!
- Be willing to accept that at times you can’t simply “just do it all”. Yes, SLPs wear invisible capes, but superheroes need their rest as well.
- Maintain a work and life balance so you don’t feel that you’re going to burn out quickly.
- One of the most powerful strategies that I practice is self-reflection. Take some time at the end of each week to reflect on all you have accomplished. Identify at least 1 or 2 areas of strength, or moments when you felt proud and accomplished and give yourself the praise you deserve!
- Identify 1 or 2 areas of weakness during the week that you would like to develop in the upcoming week and set a realistic goal for yourself.
- Keep track of all your goals, so you can go back at the end of a week, month, or year, and see how far you’ve gone from the beginning.
I frequently like to remind myself that the clinical fellowship is a learning experience. As we continue our work in the field, we will never stop learning! We should always keep in mind the “why” of what we do, especially when working with the bilingual population. We have been presented with the tools, resources, and skill set to facilitate communication. Now more than ever, our skills as bilingual SLPs are needed to continue enhancing the field and the services that we provide to individuals of diverse cultural backgrounds. In the end, what we do today can change someone’s life tomorrow. As a bilingual clinical fellow, I am ready to make every day count!