Guest Post: Transition to Kindergarten: Are bilingual students with speech-language delays being placed in more restrictive settings?

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In today’s guest post, a NYC based colleague, raises a few provocative and thought provoking questions regarding the appropriateness of restrictive classroom settings for bilingual children with limited English proficiency.  Read more to find out what she has to say on this highly relevant and timely topic. 

In a special education preschool, speech- language pathologists are an integral part of an interdisciplinary team.  This team is usually comprised of a special education teacher, a school psychologist, a speech- language pathologist (SLP) as well as occupational (OT) and physical therapists (PT).  Ideally, all disciplines meet together on weekly or bi- weekly basis to discuss each student’s relevant progress, persisting difficulties brainstorm ideas for further treatment.  This is the time when everyone ‘gets on the same page’.  Opinions are voiced.  Collaborative decisions are made. Goals are re- thought and outcomes are re- measured.

As a school- based SLP, I always try to advocate for my students’ speech- language needs to help the teachers and other providers to see a more comprehensive picture of the child’s strengths and deficits.  For example, I often find myself sharing with the teacher the underlying reasons for the child’s limited comprehension (e.g. when following directions, during story time) or lack of knowledge of particular concepts (prepositions, attributes, etc.).

There are also frequent questions and concerns regarding select students’ limited socialization with peers within the classroom.  This is an observation that is sometimes easier to make for the classroom teacher versus a speech- pathologist since the settings in which we service the children are different.   Hence, the skills the teacher sees may differ greatly from the skills I see in my individual therapy sessions, where I have more opportunities to learn about underlying difficulties with comprehension and production.  This is why consistent communication and collaboration is key to progress that is evident and measurable across all settings.

There are also Turning Five meetings.  These usually take place early in the year, when the teacher, the school psychologist, and the educational supervisor seek input from all the team members regarding  appropriate placement for our last year students going to Kindergarten.  It is fortunate if a student enters the special education preschool at the age of three and has two full years to build up the necessary skills for successful academics beyond preschool.  However, some of our students enter preschool at the age of four with a year or less left to “catch up” before they face the rising expectations of Kindergarten.

What seems to determine a preschooler’s ultimate placement, aside from the visit from an outside psychologist/ educator to observe the student’s overall functioning, is intactness of their receptive and expressive language, the presence and frequency of “problem” behaviors as well as the student’s social skills.   This becomes particularly tricky with bilingual children, whose linguistic and cognitive skills in English range vastly and whose “problematic” behaviors may appear and disappear throughout the school year, often a function of their limited ability to “use words” in the classroom.

That being said, there are a number of bilingual children on my caseload, many of whom are sequential bilingual learners with English being their second language (L2).   It is also not uncommon for these sequential bilinguals to first begin to acquire their L2 (English) here at the preschool, where English is the language of instruction and intervention. Speech- language functioning and overall cognitive progress of these children vary greatly, and  in part, depend  on how much English these students were exposed to prior to starting preschool and how much of it they “pick up” while being in the program.   It is during the Turning Five meetings that their  overall progress becomes especially salient.

At these meetings I find that for some of our bilingual students, in particular, the sequential bilinguals, whose English is usually notably limited, the recommended Kindergarten setting tends to be smaller, and more restrictive ( e.g., classroom size of 12).   This type of  educational environment is often recommended for children with severe delays/ disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Learning Disability (LD), Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS), and other impairments affecting speech- language and/or cognitive skills.   It is these more severe disorders that typically explain the persistent global delays in overall language and cognition despite the support of the smaller classroom and related services.

Hence, it is alarming to me when a bilingual student with culturally and linguistically diverse background and limited L2 exposure, transitions into a Kindergarten setting of 12 in the absence of confirmed global delays.   Additionally, because a special education classroom almost always includes students with a variety of diagnoses and behaviors, this educational setting becomes of further questionable benefit for the less delayed (or no- diagnosis) children, as the more severely impaired students are not the best models for appropriate social skills and verbal communication.

So why do these bilingual students with no diagnosis or confirmed global delays continue to get placed into smaller, more restrictive educational settings?  One of the more obvious answers that comes to mind is because these children will not be able to function in a large General Education setting due to their limited English language proficiency.

There are obviously other reasons to explain why limited speech- language proficiency is gained by some of our bilingual students.  Each child’s case would need to be studied on an individual basis as there are many important variables to consider when looking at bilingual language development.   Specifically, we would need to review all of the relevant cultural and linguistic background information starting from birth, such as the amount of L1 and L2 exposure in and out of home, history of speech- language delays, and the level of education in the family, just to name a few.   Once the background information is gathered, the other variables to consider are: 1) the amount of time that the bilingual student has spent in an all English formal academic setting; 2) the presence of “problem” behaviors that maintain the overall delays and reduce the amount of time the student is actually learning; and 3) the lack of sufficient, if any, L1 support (e.g., Spanish, Bengali, Arabic, etc).

The latter is of particular interest to me as I am a bilingually certified English/ Russian speech- language pathologist myself.  However, being well educated on the issues of dual language development and disorders, I, as most SLPs practicing in the culturally diverse New York City, have little practical language skill to offer to my Arabic, Spanish, Bengali, or Albanian speaking students.  Thus, a big part of what we do with some of our culturally diverse students is, for lack of better words: we “exercise” our nonverbal communication skills and teach ESL.

Sure, an ongoing collaboration and a close relationship with the child’s family can potentially shed light on the speech- language and cognitive skills of the student’s L1.   Hence, it is important to thoroughly collect all the background information and communicating with the family on a consistent basis. However, my experience has been that the limited communication I am able to establish with the family (that often speaks L1 only) yields little information that can guide me in my speech- language sessions.  Therefore, in most such cases, I cannot reliably pinpoint the exact speech- language deficits present in the language other than English or Russian.  For this reason, it’s not uncommon that while I try to teach my students “apples” and “bananas” in L2, in my speech- language sessions, they are busy speaking in phrases in the home in their native language (L1).

This is an ongoing issue of inappropriate service model and classroom setting for our bilingual special education students.   Research is rife with examples of typically developing bilingual students who are immersed in English only educational environments, taking longer to learn and acquire L2 skills.  This is even more consequential for children with special needs, whose speech- language and/or cognition is already delayed.  Subtractive bilingualism is the term Genesee (2004) and colleagues use in their book “Dual Language Development and Disorders” to describe this language learning dilemma and the danger of “switching” our culturally diverse students to English only.

Literature explains that the problem with the monolingual (English only) placements is that many of our already delayed bilingual children don’t quiet “catch up” with their monolingual peers or don’t “catch up” nearly as fast.   Therefore, the English only restrictive classroom setting recommended for our bilingual students with special needs carries a rather pessimistic long term implication for their overall academic success.

But what if every bilingual child with special needs received enough L1 support? Would that change the outcome? What if we had enough bilingual certified SLPs representing a variety of cultures and languages to help our culturally diverse students? Would the bilingual children still be placed into restrictive settings with no L1 support and with communicative interactions that offer few appropriate models?  I happen to think that if these students received speech- language services in both the L1 and L2 they would make significantly more progress and at a much higher rate.

It would certainly further expedite their progress and make the instruction process more holistic and ethical.   Of course, today, more than ever, we have major problems with budget cuts that affect the number and the size of special education classrooms available to us, as well as, the amount and the type of services we can offer.  In fact, in recent years it has become much more difficult to qualify a child for related services even in the presence of notable deficits.

Greater still is the cost of not delivering appropriate and culturally/ linguistically ethical services to our bilingual children.  We might be in far greater need of special education services years down the line into the child’s schooling, when trying to remediate speech- language/ cognitive difficulties that were further compromised due to the lack of appropriate language support. Just something to think about!

nrslp Natalie has a MS in Communication Sciences and Disorders from Long Island University (LIU) as well as Bilingual (Russian/English) Certification, which allows her to practice speech- language pathology in both Russian and English. Following graduation, Natalie has been working with both monolingual and bilingual 0- 5 population in New York City, and has been an active advocate for preschoolers with disabilities in her present setting.  Natalie’s clinical interests and experience have been focused on  early childhood speech- language delays and disorders including speech disorders (e.g., Articulation, Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS), Pervasive Developmental Disorders, Autistic Spectrum Disorders,  Auditory Processing Disorders, Specific Language Impairment (SLI), as well as Feeding Disorders.  

2 Responses to “Guest Post: Transition to Kindergarten: Are bilingual students with speech-language delays being placed in more restrictive settings?”

  1. Regina Libina Shvets April 8, 2013 at 10:30 pm #

    Interesting article Natailie! In school we were taught to utilize the services of an interpreter in cases where the child or family do not speak English. How realistic is that in your setting?

  2. natalieslp1 April 19, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    Regina, thank you for taking the time to comment.
    Yes, we my school offers the option of using the interpreter services. However, if we have to do it for every other child, I am certain my school administration will be, at the very least, unhappy, as it could be time- consuming and costly. It is a little bit easier with the Spanish speaking children as we have some staff here at the school that is often willing to make a call and ask questions. However, everyone’s time is very limited. The day is extremely hectic for all. For children of other cultural backgrounds, it is a real issue, especially if the family does not at speak English. Also, my school is located in an area of predominantly low socio- economic layer, which means many of our students come from poorer, struggling families, often, with lots of siblings and limited parental involvement. In the few instances when the parent/ caregiver is able to communicate in English, I feel there is still limited information that can guide me in my speech- therapy sessions. After all, I cannot support the child’s L1 as I do not speak Arabic (Turkish, Romanian, etc). I realize we, as spech pathologists, must strive to just do our best, under the circumstances. However, raising awareness and problem- solving together with our teaching and clinical staff daily is paramount. Do we do that enough? Do we need more programs? How do we also ensure that our bilingual speech pathologists have enough skills in the language other than English to offer quality bilingual therapy? I often hear from bilingual Russian SLPs that they have no idea what to do with their monolingual and bilingual Russian clients as they feel their Russian is not up to par to conduct a quality speech- language analysis. Now, what about all the kids whose language NO ONE speaks/ understands?

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