The other day I read a post by Nicholas Miller on the Speech and Language Sciences @ Newcastle University blog. He talked about the reprinting of his book, “Bilingualism and Language Disability” in psychology press’ classic revivals series. He reminisced about how the 1984 book came to be in the first place. It made me think back on my early clinical experiences and how some of the experiences shaped what I do today. Most of my undergraduate and graduate training was excellent. But, there were some things that I observed during my graduate clinical training in off campus placements that had a profound effect on what I would later study.
A strength of the graduate program in which I enrolled was the opportunity to learn from many clinicians in the field. To that end, I had a school placement one semester with two different school based SLPs. In one of the schools there was a fairly large Samoan population– and many many of these kids seemed to be on the caseload. I worked with children in groups of about 6. One particular group I remember asking what their goals were. “Pragmatics,” came the answer. “All of them?” I asked. “Yes, they don’t look you in the eye.”
It occurred to me that maybe there were cultural differences at work here, but I was by no means an authority on culture, let alone Samoan culture. Yet, I couldn’t help but think that there was an overrepresentation of Samoan children on the caseload and that ALL of their goals were in the pragmatics domain– eye contact being the most common goal. I timidly proposed that perhaps there were cultural differences in adult-child eye contact expectations. I was assured that yes while there were possibly cross-cultural differences eye contact was NOT one of them.
Soon after I finished my CF I started a private practice where I ran around doing bilingual evaluations and providing assessment and intervention services to preschool and school districts. Looking back I can’t imagine how I managed to do such a thing. There were no standardized speech and language tests for other languages. At the undergraduate level I had majored in Spanish and CSD. So, I know I did a lot of language sample analysis. We know so much more now though about what kinds of errors children make in Spanish and English.
One particular school district called one day and asked if I could do assessments on about 15 Spanish-speaking children. While I thought I’d be up to the challenge of doing 15 evaluations, it seemed like a lot especially when I heard that these were ALL the Spanish speakers at one particular school. The officials in the school district were worried though because it was unlikely that ALL of the children from a particular language group at one school actually had language delays ALL of them had somehow ended up with IEPs. I don’t know why no one stopped to THINK while they were in the process of scheduling assessments, IEPs and so on. I agreed to screen the children and from there decide whether assessment was necessary. I don’t know what I did to screen since I know there were no screeners for Spanish at the time. Probably I did what many clinicians did at the time and use my own screener, developed based on my experience with young children. Between screening and observation I came to the conclusion that maybe one of two of these kids might have a speech or language impairment. The SLP at the school agreed that the kids I had concerns about were those who parents and teachers had concerns about and that the rest of the kids had pretty good communication skills. I did ask how the rest of the kids ended up on the caseload since we were so obviously in agreement. Well, they had scored significantly below the standardized test administered to them in English. I learned that sometimes observations, parent and teacher report have to override standard scores on tests. That’s a lesson I continue to use and teach.
I hear less and less about these kinds of misguided practices. But I wish they didn’t happen at all. They affect children. Children who may be completely bewildered as to why they are subject to learning about looking at an adult in the eye– when at home that’s not the expectation. About why they and all the Spanish speakers in the school have to go to speech.
When I think back on these incidents I realize we do know more, we have better instruments and better ways of considering language and culture in our assessments and interventions.