New Program Makes Online Education Work for Special-Needs Children

Published September 29, 2014

Compared to children who don’t have disabilities, those who do have them often work slower, need more attention, or need especially explicit, detailed instructions. It’s well-known learning gadgets and online classes or therapy can work wonders with autistic children, but kids with other special-needs can also benefit from online education tools.

The Presence Learning company offers online speech and occupational therapy for kids in grades K-12. A shortage of speech therapists prompted the company to emerge about five years ago, said Vice President of Marketing Katie Povejsil.

“There were a lot of students who were not being served and were being underserved, especially with speech therapy,” she said. “No one had been able to put together all the pieces.”

For Presence Learning, closing the special-needs education gap means providing therapists and alternative courses for disabled students, so they can still attend a traditional brick-and-mortar school. 

“We’ve seen a lot of growth,” Povejsil said. “When we first started doing this, schools couldn’t really get their minds wrapped around speech therapy delivered online. A lot of people still have a hard time imagining how that would work.”

Conference Call Speech Therapy

Presence Learning provides speech therapists and online interactive activities for children with special needs so they can excel in school. Sometimes the therapists are physically present with the students, but the company makes therapists available via video conference call all across the country.

“When the school districts are having difficulty finding those resources locally, we are an alternative mode of delivery for those services,” Povejsil said. “We do the same things that a speech therapist would do on the ground; we just do them online. Kids really like it—they like anything on the computer. We’ve been able to deliver assessments online, and it’s a huge productivity improvement for schools because student assessment is very time-consuming.”

Meeting Unfilled Needs 

After all, said Povejsil, not every school district has the speech or occupational therapists children need, especially for students from different cultures.

“It’s not likely that every school district will have someone they need,” Povejsil said. “We can provide speech therapists and teachers who understand the cultural background of the student that would not necessarily be available on a local level.”

Povejsil and the board at Presence Learning aren’t the only ones who see gaps in the education system, where students “get left behind.” Rocky Mountain Preparatory School CEO James Cryan started a school promoting virtues and had work to help keep kids in school. The school targets high-need students, using both specialized in-person staff and online instruction.

“The public school system was designed for different goals,” Cryan said. “Kids come to us ready to learn and excited to learn, and many schools in lower-income areas are not doing a great job of meeting the needs of the kids and pushing them beyond.”

Kate Patrick ([email protected]) writes from Salem, Oregon.

Photo by University of the Fraser Valley.