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Provider Spotlight: Deirdre Sturm

Deidre Sturm, MS, MA, CCC-SLP, BCBA, received twin Masters degrees, one in Speech Pathology Audiology, and a second Masters in Behavior Analysis, in the 1980s. She received the first degree at the University at Albany in Albany, New York, and the second degree at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. In addition to being an SLP, Deidre is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. A California resident for 20 years, Deidre moved to Longmont, Colorado three years ago to be close to her two sons and new granddaughter. She’s an environmental activist and commutes everywhere by eBike. On her eBike, she can travel 25 miles in a pop. She loves the wonderful trails in Colorado.

What inspired you to become an SLP?

I wanted to go into deaf education when I was an undergraduate. I started taking classes in communication and in audiology. At that point I was introduced to autism and that’s what inspired me to become an SLP. I was working with so many children that had autism who required speech and language services and that’s what steered me away from deaf ed more towards speech and language therapy.

What made you want to be a teletherapist with PL?

I had been a clinical director for a nonprofit in California for my previous job. I did a lot of training online with school staff around the areas of inclusive education. And I realized the impact I could have working remotely—I could see more people, there’s less commuting, there are myriad reasons. I found PresenceLearning and began to speak with them, and I spoke to a number of other therapists. As someone who lived in California and dealt with traffic, I was really ready to have a job where I didn’t have to get in a car. That was my initial impetus—I just didn’t want to commute anymore.

But once I started working with these “digital natives,” I saw that the kids have such an easy time forming these relationships. That was really exciting and interesting to me because initially I was concerned about how I could work on pragmatic language, how I could work on these skills when I’m not sitting across from someone, these skills that are considered more soft skills. It’s very easy actually. Your face is highlighted. They only see you. You’re coming at them through their earphones. It eliminates some of the distractions that we deal with in other settings.

What do you enjoy about being a provider with PL?

This year my entire caseload is with a large charter school organization in California. Every student I have this year is homeschooled. I love working with virtual students and their families. In the homeschool charters, it is great to have parents listening in on sessions so they can carry over the skills their student is learning. One of the things I love about working with students is they are so at ease in this format that you develop a very close relationship with them.

Also, even when I wasn’t in homes, but was in schools, you’re getting a snapshot of what is going on in the school through the student. I enjoy having the interaction with parents or teachers. I schedule meetings with parents or teachers to connect with them so I can ask them to do follow-up activities or they can tell me what their concerns are. Some of their concerns are obviously bigger than the articulation issue or speech issue we’re working on. I also really enjoy getting to see different parts of the country and work with kids in different parts of the country. That’s been really fun and interesting. And of course, as a teletherapist I love having control over my schedule. That’s been one of the main things.

What were you most surprised about when you made the transition to be a teletherapist?

I was surprised by how easy it is to form a relationship with the students in the PL platform. The platform is designed to facilitate a positive relationship between the therapist and student based on targeted, skill-based activities the students are successful with.

What do you find most challenging about being a teletherapist?

Sitting at my computer for long stretches is a challenge! To counteract all the sitting, I stand up. I do activities with students, especially ones who are struggling to modulate their attention, who are either hyperactive, or having a hard time with focus. I sing during sessions. We’ll do movement games. We do hand games. I’ll stand up during my sessions and walk around. I’ll walk outside and show them the snow. I have a couple of breaks during the day. I ride my bike a lot after sessions so I try to make sure I’m done before it’s dark. I get up in the morning and do some yoga. Those kinds of things help mitigate the challenge of long stretches of sitting.

Can you tell us about your caseload?

My current caseload is all homeschoolers so I am working with families. It’s a very varied caseload which I appreciate. I have a child who stutters this year. I haven’t worked with stuttering in years. So I’ve taken about 25 CEUs since that came up so I was sure that I felt truly competent working with this student. I have a number of kids who are on the autism spectrum. And that was my focus for years and years. I worked primarily with kids who have autism. It’s been very interesting having the families right there with me. When you work in schools sometimes you struggle to connect with parents. I don’t have any of those issues. I’m talking to the parents. It’s often the mother. Before the session, after the session, in the middle of the session we’ll talk for a moment and I’ll point something out to them. I can highlight a skill in the moment for parents to carry over. That’s been wonderful. I have a very typical elementary-aged caseload for a school speech therapist—I have fluency, language, articulation, pragmatics.

Could you walk us through your daily routine? A “day in the life of a PL therapist” if you will?

On the days that I work with PL (M,W,F), I start by making a cup of tea and then check my schedule and log into my room. I have already checked my email and responded. When my first student signs in, I am off and ready to go. After three years of telepractice, I have realized that I appreciate a break after about 2 hours of therapy and build in breaks where I can eat, take a short walk, check the weather, or catch up on documentation. I also use these breaks to add activities to my queues so I am ready for future sessions. I plan my sessions to follow a pattern of activities starting with developing auditory skills, practice on individual goal, general conversation, and more individualized practice. I am usually done by 3:00 and then I take a bike ride along the beautiful trails of Boulder County.

What is one piece of advice you would offer a therapist considering making the transition to telepractice?

It’s important to consider the difference between being a contractor and being an employee, especially for younger therapists as they’re looking at their future. They’ll need to be proactive and understand the differences. I think the schedule is really beautiful in that we have so much control over our schedule. And there’s so much opportunity to work in different parts of the country so you really can manage your schedule to work the hours you want to work. One of the things I’ve made an effort at is connecting with the other therapists. I’ve just been working with a therapist who is in this charter system who’s new to the California IEP system. I’ve met with her a few times and helped walk her through the IEP system and how to fill out the forms for the IEP. So I think reaching out to the other therapists in the PL Care Network is really important.

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