Problem-solvers, parent-coaches, think-tankers and tech-savvy are terms which describe school-based therapists as they help students with physical and intellectual disabilities be successful through virtual learning.
Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) School-Based Therapy Services employs 157 physical, occupational and music therapists and assistant therapists who work in 32 school districts and charter schools. HCDE’s team of highly trained therapists provide support for more than 7,000 students in greater Harris County with autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disabilities and other challenges.
At a Glance, School-Based Therapy Services in 2019-2020:
- 6,668 students served
- 7,228 teachers/educators served
- 24 ISDs served, 4 charter schools, 1 special education co-op, 1 nonprofit, 2 HCDE schools
- Highest percentage population served are children with autism (32.7 percent)
- Second-highest percentage population served are children with intellectual disabilities (23 percent)
“Therapy sessions are conducted in a variety of ways, depending on the individual needs of the student,” HCDE School-Based Therapy Services Director Carie Crabb said. “Sometimes therapists are attending a virtual class lesson along with the student they are supporting. At other times, the therapist is providing a virtual session with a student and their parent or caregiver.”
As therapists continue to meet a main goal of helping students succeed in the school setting, the biggest adjustment since the pandemic is with technology. Districts first struggled to get equipment to families. Therapists then had to climb a steep technology learning curve themselves.
“We are able to do things now that we never imagined possible before,” said Crabb.
A student needs help with handwriting skills or with using a pair of scissors. Distraction-free home workspaces are set up to help students with attention-deficit disorders. Parents are shown how to use writing or typing accommodations such as text-to-speech devices with their children.
HCDE manager and physical therapist Leah Alba talks about the qualities needed to be an excellent “tele-therapist.”
“I think being a ‘tele-therapist,’ one needs to be patient, flexible, innovative and resourceful,” said Alba.
When students began learning from home, she recalls challenges including computer connectivity, unfamiliarity with software and learning platforms, schedules and meeting parents’ needs.
“But when you start seeing your students on the other end of the computer and how the parents participate during the session, it gave me a sense of purpose,” Alba said. “It was an opportunity for me to share my ideas with parents, problem-solve how their child can participate during instructional lessons, modify their environment, identify alternative strategies and help guide parents through the instructional routine.”
Occupational therapist and HCDE manager Traci Gault has worked in school therapy for over a decade. She agrees with Alba about the pandemic making therapists “think outside the box.”
“Therapists were able to successfully transition from in-person learning to virtual learning since we use a “coaching model,” Gault said. “Teachers and staff are shown and instructed in various strategies to help support students. These strategies are used by teachers and staff when providing support to their students daily.”
As many districts return to in-person instruction, therapists are careful to follow strict guidelines set forth by each of those districts, including social distancing, plexiglass barriers and face masks.
Manager Alba believes the feeling of being “connected” rings true for both in-person and virtual therapy.
“If think the most difficult part about my new role as a manager in the virtual world is making sure everyone feels connected and stays motivated,” she said. “Phone calls, emails and virtual chat are still available, but it can still be difficult to ensure everyone feels connected and supported.”
Crabb thinks of her staff of therapists as unsung heroes who have a deep sense of dedication and care for the students with disabilities whom they serve.
“These challenging times have brought to light the hard word and selfless sacrifice that they put forth every day,” she said.