Speech-Language Pathologists are in high demand, and kids need them now more than ever

 By JACQUELINE COLE

 Monitor staff

Published: 06-19-2023 5:50 PM

Bonnie Vaillancourt spends her days at her pediatric private practice in Keene helping children communicate with the world around them. 

Vaillancourt is a speech-language pathologist— someone who diagnoses and treats “speech, language, voice and swallowing disorders in adults and children,” according to Concord Hospital. She owns her own pediatric private practice where her youngest patient is 2 and her oldest is 21. 

Vaillencourt says that many people misunderstand speech and language as just the functional aspect — how to pronounce “S” and “Th” sounds, or how to roll your “R”s. Those aspects, she says, are just the “speech” part. The language portion of the practice refers to broader aspects of communication — pointing, gestures, facial expressions, and more. 

That’s why speech-language pathology could be peaking in demand right now. Pediatric pathologists like Bonnie Vaillancourt are dealing with an influx of children whose formative years were clouded with masking and social distancing during COVID.  

“Everybody was socially isolated and did not have to use their expressive language,” said Vaillancourt. 

Mothers were more responsible than ever to expose their babies to communication skills, but even those parents who tried to compensate for their kids’ lack of socialization fell short, said Vaillancourt. Due to the work-from-home culture of COVID, kids would watch their guardians talk through a screen that did not convey eye contact, body gestures, and other critical skills.

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This lack of exposure to typical communication is apparent in the youngest generation. Some children forget that they don’t have masks on, leading to them making inappropriate faces and getting in trouble, said Vaillancourt. Others put themselves in physical danger — climbing on high furniture and banging on surfaces to communicate their needs without the proper tools. 

“They didn’t get some of those building blocks to help them with school readiness,” said Tiffany White, senior director of school services in speech-language pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

School-based speech-language pathologists are facing their own set of difficult circumstances, as schools are struggling to staff many teaching and substitute positions since the pandemic ended. This employment issue forces speech-language pathologists in schools to have to substitute in classrooms and jump in on other vacancies, forcing them to reschedule their speech-language sessions. 

“They are being pulled into many different areas to help with the overall shortage,” said White. 

For school-based speech-language pathologists, this overwhelming workload, federally mandated paperwork, and increase in cases – which in some states is up to double what their caseloads were pre-COVID – makes the industry less and less appealing.

On top of the difficult nature of the job, becoming a speech-language pathologist require a master's degree, a clinical fellowship, and the completion of multiple trainings and prerequisites. 

“We have had a shortage before the pandemic, but the pandemic exacerbated that,” said White. 

Vaillancourt uses a virtual model that works, she says, but not for everyone. Especially in the pediatric sector, children with attention issues find it difficult to benefit from virtual speech-language pathology.

White said that school districts are attempting a few solutions. Some are working with contractors to recruit new staffers, and other districts are offering financial incentives to obtain and maintain speech pathologists at their schools. 

“There’s always gonna be a need,” said Vaillancourt.

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