No matter what we do, what we do matters.
Meet Katie Chesters. Katie is an Early Childhood Speech Language Pathologist at the Ann Reid Early Childhood Center in Naperville, Illinois. Katie has been in this role since the school opened in 2010, and has been working in her field for 17 years.
G: This place seems so special. Tell me more about this school and this space.
K: This center was built in 2010 specifically for 3 to 5 year-olds with special needs. For example, some of our students may be non-ambulatory, so the architects were keeping in mind whether or not the classrooms could accommodate wheelchairs and whether or not those kids could still see out the window. A lot of consulting went into building this structure. Our tile floors are heated because we are on the floor with the children all day. Our school is equipped with an FM system that links directly into children’s hearing aids if they are hearing impaired. It is also a green building, so our roof is a garden.
We are part of District 203, so we do have kids who have special needs, but we also have kids who are considered at-risk and qualify for grants. We also have the community students, who are our tuition paying students from the community. All three groups are put together in a blended classroom. Our desire is to make it look like any other typical classroom with supports. All of these kids help and model for each other how to learn and follow a routine. It’s a pretty amazing building with a ton of specialists.
G: What a neat little place! Tell me a little bit about your day to day routine here.
K: Technically, a Speech Language Pathologist is responsible for identifying children who present with language delays, communication delays and/or disorders in many different areas of communication. We screen a child if there is an area of concern, we evaluate them with formal and informal measures, we determine whether or not they are eligible for services based on criteria, we develop goals for them to work on so that they can meet developmental milestones, and then we provide therapy for those children.
We are looking at children who maybe have difficulties expressing and understanding language, or whether or not they can interact with others. Do they know how to effectively communicate their wants and needs? In order to work on these areas and other areas where kids struggle, we might modify the curriculum, give them speech generating devices, or provide visuals. We work side-by-side with physical therapists, occupational therapists, social workers, psychologists, early childhood teachers and extra staff within the building, like the teaching assistants who are so important. It takes a village.
G: It sounds like you juggle so many different elements within this one role. How did you get into this career?
K: I thought I was going to go to medical school, and I knew I wanted to do something that was helping others. I also knew I wanted to go to Michigan State, and they had a top program in Audiology and Speech Sciences. I took the track of Speech Language Pathology, but I found my niche with kids and I knew I wanted to be a Mom someday. I just loved being in a school setting. I just felt like it was where I was supposed to be, like it was my calling.
G: It is SO your calling. You are a friend of mine, and over the years I have seen you interact with kids. You always talk about your job with such enthusiasm. What is it that you love so much about this job? I feel like I have seen so much of your passion for it over the years.
K: First of all, working at this level, I see so much progress in my students. Their brains are like sponges, and I see the most progress at the early childhood level. Kids with special needs need to start therapy as soon as possible because that is when they have the most potential for growth, and it sets them up for success in the older years. For me, it is so incredibly rewarding to watch these children from one day to another, literally within 24 hours, gain a skill set that they are going to be able to build on in the area of communication. I think it’s also rewarding because we work with families. Developing relationships with families, gaining trust with them, and showing them what they can do at home with their kids to improve communication is just so instrumental in getting them to make progress. And frankly, these kids still think I am a Disney princess so they like seeing me. I can hula hoop and juggle and do all of these silly things and they think we are just having fun, and really it’s therapy. And I love the kids so much. I love the people I work with. The staff, the kids, you learn something new every day.
G: Your personality by nature is infectious and positive and upbeat. I have always loved that about you. That being said, we are all human and have our challenging days. What are some of the challenges that you face?
K: One of the biggest challenges is that the caseload size increases as you go through the year. Anytime a child turns three and ages in, you have a new kid who doesn’t know the routine. And each child needs services, so it’s challenging to meet the minutes that they each individually need as the caseload goes up and to still feel like you are doing a good job. Another frustrating part is just the huge amount of paperwork. We can’t do any of the paperwork during the school day, so it happens at home, sometimes until midnight. Finding time to make quality materials and do lesson plans and juggling it all is just challenging.
G: That’s a lot to balance. You are at school all day with high energy to meet the needs of the kids, then you come home to your own kids and family and then have more work to do before the day ends. How do you manage it all?
K: You just do it. This is all I know. I have been a full-time employee since 2002 and then my own children have come into my life. I just make it work. I would say having a routine is helpful. My boys and I are in a routine, and my husband is amazingly helpful and awesome. He and I are definitely 50/50 when it comes to being parents and caring for the house. I just come home, lay down the rules, and we get it done. After dinner we take the dog for a walk and that is such a release. I love going for a walk. Sometimes it’s with my boys, sometimes I just want to be alone. Then we try to do a little more family time before bed and then I make lunches, might have time to watch a little tv, and then we just do the same thing the next day. Life is good. I have no complaints. I have a great job, my family is awesome, and you just make it work.
G: What are some of the things that you feel are the end results and goals of the work that you do for these kids? How do you see kids’ lives being changed as a result of the work that you do?
K: It truly takes a village. When a child enters our building, our goals for them are not about what he or she is going to be able to do this year. It’s about “what are they going to need to be ready for kindergarten?” but also “what are they going to need to be ready as an adult?”. We are the foundation, that base of knowledge that they are going to need to build on to become independent, fully-functioning adults. We are already thinking about them being active members of our community. What I am looking for is their ability to functionally communicate to express their thoughts, their wants, and their needs with others.
There are so many factors that have to be in alignment for me to be able to tell you, “I need help”. It’s not always about speech, it may be something else. It may be a gesture, it may be a low-tech picture board to communicate wants and needs. Really and truly it’s about the child expressing themselves effectively with any mode of communication. For these families, it’s about a child being able to place an order at a restaurant, or go bowling and ask for a pair of shoes, and not need to rely on their parents or an adult next to them for the rest of their lives. They need to be independent. It’s so important.
G: I never thought about it in the sense that it’s not always about only developing language and speech, but that it’s at the heart about communication alone. I am sure so many families appreciate that shift and feel peace of mind when they see emerging independence for their child.
K: Yes. I have one child who I gave a speech generating device, and the parents were really focusing on their child learning to talk. But as soon as I gave that child the device he was able to say for the first time, “Love Mommy”. Maybe the language is going to come much later, but for these kids they find ways now to say, “I love you Mom” or “I’m really hungry” or “I want to go outside and play with my friend”, and we can do that with other modes of communication other than just speech.
G: What is that like for you in getting to be a part of that? It can be easy after 17 years in the same job to lose sight of the importance of our roles in life. What an incredible gift to these families and these kids.
K: It’s so rewarding to see that my hard work shows results for these families. I am just so happy for that child and for that family, that they are witnessing communication together. That develops their relationships, and those family ties. Just being able to see how it brings kids together and how they engage with each other. Teaching these alternate forms of communication creates a space where relationships can grow. Every human being needs a friend. And it is so important for these children to be able to engage with others and share. And to be able to laugh and giggle and play. It’s just the most important thing for this age.
G: Is there anything else you think is important for others to know about the work that you do?
K: Just the point about early intervention. If a parent suspects a delay of any kind in communication, screenings are free. Call your school district and get it checked out. The earlier the better. Let’s work on those skills now. I also would like for the community to know to not refer to children by their syndrome or their disorder first. They might say “That Autistic Child” or “That Down Syndrome Kid”. That is not who they are. They may have that, but that does not encompass who that amazing person is. We call them “A child who has Autism”, or “A child who has Down Syndrome”. These kids are so much more than what we label them as. Please put the child first. It is so important for these kids to grow up knowing that they are so much more than their disability.