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Language and Literacy in Inclusive Early Childhood Programs

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In this interview, we speak with Elise Prosser about supporting the language and literacy development of preschoolers and how individual education plans (IEPs) are formed in early childhood programs. Elise shares about her journey to becoming a speech language pathologist and advises how students interested in speech pathology might explore this career.

More About Our Guest

Elise Prosser is a speech language pathologist from the Urbana Early Childhood School in Urbana, IL. Ms. Prosser received her bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing science and master’s degree in speech language pathology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has been working in the schools as a speech language pathologist for five years. 



Introduction: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast we share information about how young children grow and learn, as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Rebecca Swartz, and I am one of the project staff members.

Dr. Swartz: In this interview, we speak with Elise Prosser, a speech language pathologist from the Urbana Early Childhood School. Ms. Prosser received her bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing science and master’s degree in speech language pathology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has been working in the schools as a speech language pathologist for five years. She joins us to talk about supporting the language and literacy development of preschoolers and how IEPs (or individual education plans) are formed in early childhood programs. She also shares a bit about her journey to becoming a speech language pathologist and how students who are interested in speech pathology might explore this career.

Dr. Swartz: Elise, it’s great to have you here on the Illinois Early Learning Project Podcast. Got to speak with your school leader, and she told us about your inclusive early childhood program, and she thankfully connected us with you and said you would be able to give us some insight into the speech and language part of the inclusive early childhood program, as well as tell us a little about IEPs. So, first I’d love to know a little bit more about you and how you became a speech language pathologist in an inclusive early childhood program.

Ms. Prosser: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. So I started with wanting to be a teacher, but I knew that I wanted to do something more specific, more individualized. So I talked to other people in high school actually, and my mom actually is a nurse, and she recommended speech. And she said, you know, speech pathology might be something you want to look into. You could work in the schools. You could work in the hospitals and, so, she connected me with a speech language pathologist at a hospital. I did some observations with her, and I just really fell in love with it. I really liked all the different niches of the profession, and I then went on to major in speech and language pathology at the U of I and got my master’s and started working in the suburbs of Chicago. I worked at two different schools. I worked at an elementary school and an early childhood program. And then I have come over to Urbana, and I have been working there for the past four years, and I love it. Early childhood is just kind of where I think I belong. Working with kids [age] 3 to 5 is really a joy. They are changing so much, learning so much, and I really enjoy the excitement that they bring each day.

Dr. Swartz: Great, I know you work in an inclusive early childhood program, which means a program that has both children with disabilities, along with children who are typically developing. I am curious what a typical day is like for a speech pathologist in a program like that. Can you tell me a little bit?

Ms. Prosser: Sure. I come in the morning. We have about 45 minutes of prep time, and then at 9 o’clock the kids come in. The first session of kids come in. I typically am doing therapy from about 9 to 11 [o’clock], and then at 11 o’clock in most of the classrooms I provide a whole class speech and language lesson. So they’ll vary by week to week, just kind of depending on what the classrooms need and some of the common errors or things that the children are working on. So I might work on phonemic awareness. I might work on different language concepts, answering questions, it just kind of depends.

Dr. Swartz: On what the kids need in that particular classroom, so you’re thinking about the individual children who you’ve worked with in therapy and their needs, as well as the needs of the whole classroom. That’s really interesting, because you mentioned earlier that you thought you’d be a teacher, but you wanted to work on something more specific. So now as a speech pathologist you are really providing support that’s going to impact children’s literacy and language development, too, because phonemic awareness, we know, is important for all children before they learn to read. So that’s really neat. What other types of things are you doing, I know it’s a full-day program, so you have an afternoon session, so you kind of repeat the morning. And then what other kinds of things do you do as a speech pathologist working on an interdisciplinary team with other professionals?

Ms. Prosser: So we are really fortunate to have an hour and a half in between the two sessions, which people think, you know, we have this long lunch, but that’s not the case. We are pretty much always in meetings. So we might have IEP meetings during that time, but most of the days we have collaboration meetings. So we will meet with each classroom team. So I meet with the teacher, who is a special education teacher as well as a regular education teacher, and the occupational therapist, the social worker, and then the psychologist sometimes or the physical therapist sometimes if needed—just to kind of touch base on what’s going on in the classroom if there’s specific students that we need to really talk about each week to help them be supported in the classroom.

Dr. Swartz: You have children who have more complex needs, maybe who have more complex disabilities, as well as children who just need speech and language support, and then typically developing children in the program. I am wondering, I am listening to your day and how busy it is, and I’m wondering about what makes this really different than working in a clinical type setting.

Ms. Prosser: I would say the biggest difference is just the ability to implement speech therapy in more of a natural environment. There is access to different peers, both peers that have disabilities as well, or peers that are typically developing. So it really, I think, helps both sides, because the children that are helping with speech therapy get to be my speech helpers, so they get to participate in therapy because they always want to be a part of the group, as well as the students that are working on specific goals.

Dr. Swartz: So it’s really motivating for kids who are working on specific goals to have a peer, but it’s also really fun and motivating for that peer to be the expert, or to play with these others peers. So you’re really a facilitator of these friendships and relationships. That’s neat, so is that what you talk about during the collaborations?

Ms. Prosser: Yeah, we do try to talk about how can we get speech and language goals, as well as other goals, in the classroom, during, in the classroom and in other therapies. So that we’re all really working on all of the goals, so that we can be most effective.

Dr. Swartz: Yeah, so that natural environment, that idea that the classroom is the chance to practice is really important, and that’s what makes, perhaps, it a special setting to work as a speech pathologist.

Ms. Prosser: Yeah, and it’s really nice to be able to see them every day, throughout the day, and I think that really helps to build a strong relationship. Being in the classroom really helps me feel like I am another teacher, and so they look at me as another teacher, and it just helps build that strong bond.

Dr. Swartz: When you talk about speech and language, as a speech pathologist, you’re working really across the spectrum, so you have children who maybe are hard to understand, and what do you call those difficulties?

Ms. Prosser: So articulation or phonology.

Dr. Swartz: Letter substitutions or?

Ms. Prosser: Yes, so a lot of children are working on, you know, the “k” and “g” sounds so they might say “tar” for “car” or some of the noisy sounds like “f” and “s” and “sh,” so.

Dr. Swartz: Okay, so then you have those children, and then you say the language is things like asking and answering questions, or asking for things, and participating in conversations. Some children have difficulty, such as autism or other more complex disabilities, that make that really hard. So you’re working on the whole spectrum of speech and language. Is there a special name for these goals?

Ms. Prosser: So, it depends on what they are working on. So I might have a goal that would say, articulation and phonology goal, or I might have a goal that is communication. So, some students are coming in who are pretty close to nonverbal. They might have some words, but they are not functional, so they might say “car,” but they’re not really pointing to a car, they’re not asking for a car. They might just be saying words.

Dr. Swartz: So for some children, it’s really even just the communication, the aspect of being able to point to something in order to make a request or to be able to gesture. So you’re thinking of language in that really broad communication sense, being able to function and ask in the natural environment.

Ms. Prosser: Yes, and with those students, we do a lot of using pictures, like they’ll exchange a picture to ask for something, or they might have a communication device that is more high tech, where they are pushing buttons to request things.

Dr. Swartz: Neat. Cool. So those children have specific goals, you said, which we in special education we usually call individualized education plan. So I wonder if you could tell me a little more about the IEP process. How do children come to your program and get identified as needing speech and language services? Maybe we’ll start there. Let’s talk about typical entry into your program.

Ms. Prosser: Sure, so there’s kind of two different typical entries. So the first one is children that have received early intervention. Before they turn [age] 3, we have to have a plan for them, whether that’s saying that they do need speech services or not. So before they turn 3, they have an early intervention transition meeting, in which their early intervention team comes and meets with our team, and we talk about what evaluations are necessary. So I am actually also a part of the assessment team. So I have a case load at Urbana Early Childhood School of students that I work with, but I also evaluate all the children that are coming in from early intervention.

Dr. Swartz: I bet families are really nervous about this transition because they’re going from a program, early intervention in our state that serves them in their home and child care settings, to a program that is more of a center. Right? Because they’re joining the school district. So I bet you that’s really interesting, to see all those toddlers turning preschoolers.

Ms. Prosser: Yeah, it is. It is important to really get a lot of information from the parents and also from the early intervention team. Because we really only get an hour to evaluate the child.

Dr. Swartz: That’s a very short time.

Ms. Prosser: Yeah, because we have so many children coming in, we really don’t have too much time to get them started in the process. So we do take a lot of what parents report and what early intervention therapists report, because they really know the children best, and we really get a starting point for them, because as soon they start school, a lot of things change. And they make a lot of growth, so …

Dr. Swartz: Preschoolers change quickly.

Ms. Prosser: Yes.

Dr. Swartz: Especially when they have those 4- and 5-year-old peers.

Ms. Prosser: Yes.

Dr. Swartz: That they are playing with all day long. It makes a big difference to have peer models for many of those children.

Ms. Prosser: Yep, absolutely.

Dr. Swartz: So that’s one way. They enter through early intervention. What’s the other way children enter the program?

Ms. Prosser: So all of our children are screened before they enter our program. And they’re given a preschool overall screener tool, and then they’re also given the expressive one-word picture vocabulary test.

Dr. Swartz: Oh.

Ms. Prosser: So that really just kind of helps us get a sense of where their vocabulary is at. It also gives us a chance to really listen to how they’re talking, listen to their speech to see if there’s any errors, and then also giving them a chance to kind of talk about the pictures and give us some sentences as well.

Dr. Swartz: So they come to screen, and how do you identify which children need to be enrolled in the program?

Ms. Prosser: So any student that has a concern in speech and language, or social-emotional, or sensory needs if we have a concern about that student, whether it’s a concern from the speech language pathologist or the teacher, we have a red sheet that we fill out that kind of explains those concerns. And it will say something like “We think that the teacher needs to watch for academic readiness skills to develop” or “The speech language pathologist needs to really kind of monitor this child for these sound errors or sentence structure,” that kind of thing. Then as the school year goes on, we determine whether or not those concerns are still present or if they’ve really gotten their feet wet, listened to other students, and developed those skills naturally.

Dr. Swartz: So that’s really interesting because that’s what’s special about this inclusive program. You are able to take children in the Preschool For All basis, who maybe are on the borderline of needing individualized support but just need that preschool experience to move them along and they’re along with the children who came in who we knew had identified specific needs. So that’s neat, so you’re able to work as part of this teacher-team to work on speech and language. Neat. So then, you say that if a child makes progress, then just monitor. If they’re not making progress, does the process change? Do you have to bring in the family? How does that work?

Ms. Prosser: Yeah, so if they’re not making progress and we still have concerns, we would start an IEP process. So that would involve, obviously, talking to parents, listening to what they think about their child’s speech and language development, and we would get together and have a meeting called a domain meeting. So we would look at all different domains of that child’s day, and so that might include academic performance, functional performance.

Dr. Swartz: So how they manage, can they follow directions to go from the carpet, to washing their hands, to the snack table. That’s three-step directions, can they do that. Can they hang up their coat and find a center to play with, or do whatever is part of the daily routine, right? That’s the kind of … so you’re thinking about the child in the whole sense. And saying, is there an issue, at this specific level?

Ms. Prosser: Right, so we would determine what areas are necessary or areas that we are concerned about, that are necessary for us to do further evaluation, and then from there we would get consent from parents to do a speech and language evaluation. And most of the evaluation really is things that we would already be doing. It’s looking at pictures, and answering questions, or naming objects. So we are doing standardized assessments as well as natural observations. So language samples, speech samples.

Dr. Swartz: Great, so keeping track of what children are doing in their natural everyday routines and using that to support them. So the goal, I’m sure of this program is that children have a really successful entry into kindergarten. They go into kindergarten and first grade being ready to read and write and learn. And having a good vocabulary and ability to communicate is really important for that. So, just curious, since parents play such an important role in this process, can you tell me a little bit more about what it’s like to work so closely with parents in these preschool years as a speech pathologist.

Ms. Prosser: Yeah, so a lot of times we are kind of the first people to point out certain things or find certain things about a child’s speech and language. I would probably say maybe half and half. A lot of times parents will come in and say I’m concerned about this speech wise. And so, we really get to talk about what happens at school versus what happens at home, and a lot of times it’s very different. And parents really are the experts of their children, they know them best, so they are a really great resource. I do my best to explain to them what are some of the struggles that their child may have, as well as things that their child is doing well. And how to work on those goals at home. So what I try to do to get parents involved is I will give each one of my students a sticker that they’ll wear on their shirt that says “Today Ms. Elise and I practiced” and then it will just kind of give them maybe one or two words of what we targeted that day, and then …

Dr. Swartz: That is so helpful. As a mom of a preschooler, you know, sometimes you ask “What did you do today?” or you know, “Tell me about..” and I’m an early childhood person, so I have a lot more strategies for listening to the words from my son, but I can imagine if you didn’t know how to get those words out of your child, that having that sticker would really help because, “Oh I’m supposed to talk about things that start with the letter P” you know or “I’m supposed to practice answering questions or asking questions.” So that’s neat. Great, that’s a great strategy. That’s so cool. I’m excited about that. So you’re really trying to help the parent be part of what’s going on during the day, to continue that work at home.

Ms. Prosser: Yeah, because you know, there’s a lot of work that we do at school, but they are only with us for two and half hours, so parents have a lot of power with the time that they spend with their kids.

Dr. Swartz: Sure, they have weekends and evenings and bath times, and mealtimes. So that’s great. So you really think of parents as being active participants in the learning process. That’s neat. I’m going to remember that sticker trick. I’m going to share that at conferences with teachers who want to help parents know what children are doing in the classroom. Very cool. So thank you so much for giving us so much insight into what it’s like to work as a speech language therapist in an early childhood program. Is there anything you’d like to say to people who are students who are interested in this field? How they might find out more? Could they come and shadow people like you?

Ms. Prosser: Yeah, so I, every year have students observe…do have to have at least 25 observation hours. And that’s really strictly contact time, so when you’re actually with a student or a client. So that can happen in the schools, that can happen in the hospitals, just to kind of get things going. I would also encourage students to really reach out to different schools and observe classrooms that have students with disabilities and without disabilities.

Dr. Swartz: So maybe when they’re in their child development classes, early in their college careers or in their high school years, if they really find that that’s interesting to them, speech and language is a viable possibility for some of them. Did you also have to know a lot about science and biology to be a speech pathologist?

Ms. Prosser: Yeah, so I’ve taken courses in neuro-anatomy and also pretty much everything above the waist is, anatomically we have to know about breathing, breathing, swallowing, talking, all that kind of stuff.

Dr. Swartz: So that’s really interesting a speech and language pathologist works on all those things. So that’s when you say children with more complex needs, though most of the children you work with that are communication centered, it’s possible you are also working on swallowing or breathing type issues with children with more complex medical needs.

Ms. Prosser: Yes.

Dr. Swartz: Neat, we could talk all day long. So thank you so much for coming in to record with me and share your knowledge with the Illinois Early Learning Project, and we’ll look forward to potentially having you back to talk again.

Ms. Prosser: Great, thank you so much for having me.

Conclusion: The Illinois Early Learning Project website at www.illinoisearlylearning.org is a source of evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.

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About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2024