Catching Up With Alyson Maldonado, M.A., CCC-SLP—Speech Therapy Advisor at BlazerWorks
Alyson Maldonado, M.A., CCC-SLP, is a licensed speech therapist and a BlazerWorks Clinical Special Education Advisory Team member. In her role, Alyson helps speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and their special education teams deliver the best services possible to students.
Extending My Passion by Supporting New SLPs
Before joining BlazerWorks, I spent 18 years working in SLP roles in various settings. I spent 11 years as an SLP and clinical director at a private practice. I also worked at a non-profit day school for children diagnosed with autism and in the Florida and Maryland public schools.
In my previous roles, I faced obstacles similar to what SLPs working in school districts experience today—including heavy caseloads and mounting paperwork. I realized I could apply my skills differently and reach a broader audience as a Clinical Special Education Advisor. I am excited to help busy administrators better understand what SLPs do and how we can help them manage their workloads. Despite the demands they face, I’m even more excited about reigniting SLPs’ passion for working in the schools.
Helping Schools Overcome Talent Shortages
In addition to supporting SLPs, my colleagues on the BlazerWorks Clinical Special Education Advisory team extend their guidance and expertise to occupational therapists, school psychologists, and other school professionals who face similar challenges working in schools. In the 2021-2022 school year, 48 states reported special education staffing shortages to the federal government.
The demand for SLPs is expected to grow 21 percent through 2031, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2021, SLPs working in hospitals and private practice settings earned at least $20,000 per year more than their public and private education counterparts.
The average national school psychologist-to-student ratio in 2021-22 was 1,127 to 1. In Alabama, Mississippi and New Mexico, those ratios were greater than 7,500 students per school psychologist. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a student-to-therapist ratio of 500 to 1.
According to a recent study, all 50 states will face an occupational therapist shortage by 2030. In 2021, Only 12 percent of all OTs worked in a school setting, according to BLS.
School districts are doing everything from lowering licensing requirements to issuing emergency licenses and offering sign-on bonuses to fill these roles. When not enough experienced therapists are available to serve students, new and veteran providers suffer the consequences, but ultimately, the students suffer the most.
Therapists must balance providing recommended treatment for students on their caseloads and fulfilling various administrative tasks, including paperwork, IEP meetings, referrals and student evaluations. Navigating all these demands within a typical work day, or even a work week, becomes increasingly difficult to stay on top of. If left unaddressed, schools increase the risk of therapist burnout and turnover.
Staffing shortages also amplify caseloads for veteran student services providers, throwing off the teacher-to-student ratios. This can lead to postponed student evaluations, missed deadlines and the need for compensatory services. We could improve student achievement if we better supported therapists and filled vacancies promptly.
As a BlazerWorks Clinical Special Education Advisor, I work with school leaders, in person and virtually, and newly placed SLPs virtually to mitigate the effects of these shortages. When we begin supporting a new therapist on an assignment, we want them to stay. We also want the services they provide to be outstanding. To make that happen, we work with everyone on their special services team—from administrators to paraprofessionals—to determine what each group needs to be successful.
After we meet a provider, we look at their current skill set and challenges. Then, we tailor our support to meet their needs. Our objective is to establish a relationship with them and foster their independence. We want them to feel comfortable approaching us with questions, particularly if they feel uneasy approaching their district team with those questions.
We often meet with therapists weekly to see if they need additional strategies or tools to help keep them on track. We sometimes check in with them at critical times, like when progress reports are due or when they have many IEP re-evaluations coming up.
The guidance we provide each therapist looks different, but this additional layer of ongoing support can help busy districts maximize their talent to reduce burnout and best serve students.
Freeing Up Therapists to Better Connect With Students
I have witnessed how incredibly important it is for therapists to build meaningful relationships with their teams, support staff, students, and families. Forging these connections is critical to helping students overcome the behavioral and mental/health challenges we see in schools today.
The BlazerWorks Clinical Special Education Advisory Team strives to give therapists the capacity and space to build deep relationships with their students and their students’ families. A positive therapist-student relationship can mean all the difference to a child who does not feel heard at home or feels disconnected at school.
I encourage school leaders to think of new and innovative ways to support SLPs and all professionals working in schools to empower them to feel successful and able to do their jobs—and prevent them from working in fight or flight mode. In our Special Education Clinical Advisory Team’s experience, some of these approaches include:
Reorganizing a day for an SLP so they can feel more accomplished and not feel as burned out.
Moving to a workload versus a caseload model. (A caseload model assigns students to therapists without considering the scope of services required or the time needed to provide them, whereas a workload model looks at all the supports and services each student needs to succeed.)
Shifting administrative tasks to a part-time staff member well-versed in managing caseloads or completing paperwork.
We also work closely with district leadership to help further reduce the stressors and demands on staff by customizing professional development on topics such as self-care, inclusion and working with students exhibiting oppositional defiant behaviors.
I believe that no matter where you work in a school, you can significantly impact a student’s life and the lives of those you work with. Your positive impact and ability to form meaningful relationships can make all the difference and motivate students to be connected, present and successful. When SLPs can make those connections, that’s where the magic happens.
Helping Blaze a New Trail For Districts
BlazerWorks Special Education Clinical Advisory Team partners with schools to support school psychologists, occupational and speech therapists and special education departments.
Learn more about Alyson and her dedicated Clinical Advisory Team colleagues.