I held my daughter's hand as we stepped into a large classroom full of smiling Master of Speech-Language Pathology students and piles of toys.
Kate shrieked in delight and promptly skipped off to join the fun.
We were there to participate in the Learning Lab project, the first of its kind hosted by the St. Ambrose University Master of Speech-Language Pathology program. The university's Occupational Therapy program hosts similar events for babies and the experiential model provides an effective way for graduate students to increase their skill set.
Sitting with Kate and the students, we sipped cups of pretend tea, stacked brightly colored blocks and laughed while bopping a red balloon around the room. Each group of MSLP students created a checklist of age appropriate milestones that are prerequisite skills for talking and communication in young children. Kate is two years old, and students were watching for eye contact, appropriate play, smiling, expression and more. For younger babies in the room, they focused on attachment with the parent and face gazing.
The lab provides students a hands-on learning opportunity in working with a specific population. Young clients, especially for students who haven't been around them, can cause anxiety and unease in a therapy setting.
"One of the reasons meeting babies face to face is so important for students is that so few have even held a baby," explained Associate Professor Rachael Suddarth, PhD. "If students do not meet babies in graduate school they will not work with babies when they graduate. For students to be prepared for clinical work, they need experience with people across the life-span."
The Learning Lab also is an excellent opportunity to prepare students providing services in the St. Ambrose University Rite Care Clinic. It is the only free clinic in the Quad Cities offering speech pathology therapies. Student-led healthcare services are provided to underserved populations with a focus on compassionate care, empowerment of the individual, management of health conditions and overall wellness. "We wish we could see more people, that's the biggest struggle," said Suddarth.
Kate does not have any speech development delays but in chatting with Suddarth, I learned the most common reason parents seek speech pathology therapy is when the child speaks few or no words by 18 months of age. Other red flags for speech delays are not understanding or following simple directions, speech that cannot be understood or unusual play (such as sorting blocks by color but never stacking them).
By educating future speech-language pathologists in the traditional classroom setting, the Learning Lab and the Rite Care Clinic, St. Ambrose supplies students the skills and confidence to provide deep, patient-centered care, and be vocal advocates in the communities where they live and work.