Contributed by Martha Aki, ECI Program Director, Katy Independent School District, ACAS
As the Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) Program Director in Katy, Texas, I have seen firsthand how telepractice benefits special education and early childhood development professionals and those they serve.
COVID-19 has impacted the way schools operate on a global scale and the pandemic has forced us to start thinking about education differently. While COVID-19 has not been a pleasant experience by any means, the outcome has not been as detrimental as it could have been for our school district because switching to a telepractice model has allowed us to cut down on costs in several areas and we have used this model during previous disasters, such as the aftermath of hurricanes and severe storms. We have also seen how we are able to benefit families in ways that we were not able to before.
The Challenge of Telepractice
Adapting to a telepractice has never been more important, but it does come with a few challenges.
The biggest challenge for us was that telepractice is what I call a coaching model, meaning that it’s hands on for the facilitator, often a parent or caretaker. Telepractice requires that they are the main facilitator, which is a change in roles. Due to this, a mindset change is required for both the practitioner and the facilitator. The practitioner has to be prepared to teach the family and coach them through not only the process of getting comfortable with telepractice, but also carrying out virtual sessions.
As practitioners, it is our job to help families understand how the entire process is going to work and get them used to the idea that we are coming into their homes in a different aspect. Along with this, not everyone is computer savvy, so setting up things such as Zoom can be difficult for some families. As they grow accustomed to these new platforms, the transition becomes easier, but there are ways to be prepared as a practitioner to make these changes seem as manageable as possible. Telepractice certification is something that could be very helpful for programs making this transition, as there is a whole module on how to work with facilitators.
Our practitioners had a host of other questions about licensing and compliance, environment, technology and other matters that also needed to be addressed. We also didn’t have much time, as we didn’t expect to be transitioning to telepractice so quickly.
How to Help Practitioners Manage this Perspective Shift?
Our practitioners needed direction in a number of different areas, but especially with regard to how to work with facilitators effectively. We needed a resource that would teach everyone the same foundational skills in telepractice so we knew that all of our ECI practitioners (who come from different backgrounds) would have the same knowledge and skillset for telepractice.
Telepractice Certification ended up being the perfect solution for our team. It goes over all the fundamentals that are important for telepractice, including a module specifically on special education and another for getting stakeholder buy-in.
As a school administrator in special education and early childhood development, this certification is important because it shows families that we are certified in multi-levels of the health industry. The modules included in the certification go into extensive detail and include information that we need to be aware of when transitioning to telepractice.
Overall, the certification gives a total understanding of what telepractice involves and I believe it would be very beneficial for ECI and other programs that have either been forced to make the switch at least partially to telepractice to make sure all of your practitioners are on the same page and prepared to give the same quality of service.
The Value of the Certification
As my staff is undergoing the certification process, I am confident they will gain a clear understanding of telepractice along with a strong support system. Switching to a virtual practice, at least part time, is never easy or without obstacles, but it has been especially difficult during the panic of COVID-19. Many of my staff have had to jump in without any understanding or preparation, which is why the certification is especially helpful at this time.
The certification ensures that providers, whether they’re therapists, facilitators, whoever they are, will have a clear understanding of what any type of telepractice would involve.
Awareness and Support is Lacking
What I have seen in the field is that many practitioners want to move into telepractice, but they aren’t sure how. For many, guidance is lacking at the state and even leadership levels, leaving practitioners at a loss and having questions, but nowhere to go for reliable answers. Telepractice certification provides a set standard and gives practitioners the support they need. IBCCES gives them a place to ask questions and find the proper resources.
Many practitioners starting out with telepractice experience anxiety, but simply because they feel unsupported and don’t have anywhere to turn. Some SLPs are not even aware that telepractice was included in the practice documents under ASHA stating that they can move forward with the telepractice model.
Along with this, many school districts don’t know that there are resources out there and that they can move forward with telepractice as a viable option for their students. Despite this, it is crucial that school districts decide if they want to restructure for telepractice. If they choose to, I only see it as a huge cost savings opportunity.
Big Savings for Schools
In our school district, we have seen big savings especially in mileage for each provider as well as savings when it comes to reduced office supply usage. The revenue that we are now bringing in is going right into our budget because we aren’t spending it elsewhere. Even with the disruption that COVID-19 has caused, we are still experiencing financial stability and I believe this is due to our ability to adapt to a telepractice model quickly.
Telepractice Gives Families Choices
Families are commonly stretched for time and are looking for the easiest, most convenient option. In this day and age, they want choice and because of the Telepractice Certification we are now going to be able to provide that to them.
Telepractice Certification Can Benefit Many
Telepractice Certification can benefit practitioners from education and healthcare alike. Many families will want to use telepractice services long-term, as after they have become accustomed to it and seen that it can be just as effective as in-person therapy they have been excited about the number of benefits telepractice has to offer, from being more convenient and saving time to reducing exposure for them and their children. Certification helps to give caretakers extra confidence and peace of mind that telepractice is taken just as seriously as regular therapy and that the expectations are the same for outcomes.
Universities with OT and SLP graduate programs can also benefit greatly from offering the telepractice certification to their students who will need to understand how to operate virtually in order to offer this option to clients.
Leadership Needs to Take Initiative
What has really helped us is that our leadership was prepared to take things online and open up virtual classrooms. I implore leadership teams in other school districts to put systems in place that will enable them to be prepared for closures, emergencies, and the shutting down of certain programs.
The pandemic has shown us that life is unpredictable and nothing is impossible. Therefore, it is imperative to anticipate the unexpected and create efficient “backup” plans to implement if and when needed.
A Time to Get Creative and Innovate
One of the things I love most about the telepractice model is that it allows people to be creative and innovative in how they provide services. Since moving to a virtual model, we have moved into providing group services and picture communication systems.
Having the credentials and credibility of IBCCES behind the names of my staff has been significant. We have already seen huge success with the autism certification, so I can only assume that families will see a difference knowing that their provider understands the standards involved in telepractice. The feedback that we have received so far from families is quite impressive and tells us that the process is working.
I believe more good will come out of this time than bad as we are beginning to look at how we lead and how we can solve problems through innovation.
My mantra throughout COVID-19 has been “let’s move the world forward, even if it’s from home.” I wholeheartedly believe that this is what we are accomplishing with telepractice. This is simply a new challenge that gives us the opportunity to get creative in order to overcome.
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