Special Education Services

The Role of Speech Language Pathology in Special Education

It’s not uncommon for kids to have trouble speaking or communicating. In fact, one in 12 children ages 3-17 will develop a speech, voice, or swallowing disorder. Many parents think that their kids will just “grow out of it” as they get older. But putting off treatment could have a long-term impact on a child’s learning and social development. 

That’s where speech-language pathology comes into play. Speech-language pathologists, better known as SLPs, can help kids with a wide range of speech problems, language issues, and other disorders. Throughout my career in special education, I’ve worked alongside dozens of excellent SLPs. So I have tons of first-hand experience with the profession and how this role fits under the special education umbrella.

There are lots of different career paths in the speech-language pathology world, but if you’re like me and passionate about helping kids, the education field will be your best option. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, or interested in becoming an SLP, this guide is perfect for you. I’ll explain exactly what a speech-language pathologist does and how this role translates to special education.

Everything You Need to Know About Speech Language Pathology in Special Education

Below you’ll learn more about speech pathologists, what they do, and their specific role in special education.

  • What is Speech Language Pathology?
  • What Does a Speech Pathologist Do?
  • How SLPs Fit Into an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
  • Ways SLPs Can Help Students With Disorders, Disabilities and Special Needs

What is Speech Language Pathology?

Lots of people hear the term “speech pathology” and automatically associate it with speech impediments, stuttering, or trouble pronouncing words. While this isn’t wrong, this just barely scratches the surface of what speech-language pathology entails. 

By definition, speech-language pathology is a scientific study that focuses on speech, fluency, feeding, and swallowing. It encompasses all aspects of speech and language. This includes applying corrective and augmentative therapy to help with various disorders related to speech and communication.

According to the American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), there are certain disorders that fall within the scope of speech-language pathology:

  • Speech Disorders — Anyone who has trouble pronouncing words or speech sounds accurately or fluently could be diagnosed with a speech disorder.
  • Language Disorders — This includes difficulties sharing thoughts, understanding other people, and expressing ideas or feelings. Having issues using proper language in a way that’s functional or socially appropriate would fall into this category as well. 
  • Swallowing Disorders — People who have trouble eating and swallowing may be diagnosed with a swallowing disorder. This is often due to an illness or injury. 
  • Cognitive Communication Disorders — Cognitive disorders are related to people who struggle to plan, pay attention, organize their thoughts, or solve problems. 
  • Social Communication Disorders — Social communication disorders occur when people struggle with the social aspects of verbal and nonverbal communication. It’s common for children with autism diagnoses to have trouble with social communication. 

As you can see, lots of this goes far and beyond what most people think of when they hear speech-language pathology. The practice even includes things like accent modifications and overall communication skills improvements. Helping a person change the way they communicate based on the social setting or listener would also fall under the umbrella of speech-language pathology.

What Does a Speech Language Pathologist Do?

Also known as speech therapists or speech-language therapists, SLPs are highly trained health professionals that have a wide range of responsibilities, depending on the setting.

SLPs may work in research programs, schools, physician’s offices, healthcare clinics, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers. If someone has a stroke or gets into a car accident, they may need to work with an SLP to help them overcome new cognitive challenges. Some SLPs even work in a private practice.

But for our purposes here today, we’re going to focus more on an SLP’s role in education and schools—specifically as it relates to special education.  

Here are some of the common roles and responsibilities for SLPs in this setting:

  • Conduct evaluations and general screenings for at-risk students
  • Train teachers and educators to help recognize and mitigate speech and language disorders
  • Offer services in one-on-one sessions or small group classes
  • Help families of children with speech problems to ensure the child is getting treatment at home and school alike
  • Help students in special education with speaking, reading, writing, listening, and learning
  • Maintain accurate and up-to-date information on students under their supervision
  • Assisting with the creation of an individualized education plan (IEP)

An SLP’s job will change based on the age and educational levels of the students. Let’s look at some examples to showcase these differences.

Role in Preschool and Early Grade Levels

Communication issues in the early stages of a child’s life can lead to long-term learning disabilities. So it’s crucial to get a proper diagnosis and begin treatment as soon as possible.

SLPs working with young children typically focus on pronunciation basics and vocabulary. This can be accomplished through practice conversations, rhyming games, and other activities. Some SLPs will use AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) devices, which provide mediated communication using pictures or symbols.

Role in Middle School and High School

When working with older students, SLPs will typically shift to advanced vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. They’ll also help the students create their own treatment plans. SLPs will explain the importance of treatments and how some exercises work better than others.

At this age, it’s important for the students to continue with self-therapy. SLPs can help these students prepare for real-world scenarios that they’ll encounter outside of the education system and classroom environment.

How SLPs Fit Into an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

If you’re unfamiliar with the term IEP, it’s an acronym that stands for “individualized education program.” This is designed for children who have special needs or need special education services in a public school setting. 

SLPs play a crucial role in the public school system. They provide assessments for children who have issues with speech, language, and communication. By conducting evaluations, an SLP can identify kids who would benefit from additional speech and language services. 

The great part about an IEP is that it’s uniquely created for each student’s specific needs. An SLP will be present when an IEP is made. So the SLP will come up with a plan based on the child’s specific struggles or disorders. SLPs will explain the types of treatment they recommend and what outcomes should be expected through completion. 

SLPs will work directly with parents, teachers, and educators when formalizing the IEP. They’ll tell parents what exercises can be done in the home setting and how often they should happen. 

Depending on the diagnosis and specific situation, everyone will have to come to a consensus about when the therapy should occur. In some cases, the child might spend a certain portion of their day in a one-on-one or group session where they’re removed from the traditional classroom. In other cases, the speech therapy sessions may occur after school hours, so the general class environment isn’t disrupted. 

Whenever possible, students working with SLPs should be placed in the “least restrictive environment.” In simple terms, this means that the student should be in the general education classrooms as much as possible. 

After the IEP has been formalized, SLPs will continue working with parents and teachers. They’ll provide therapeutic plans, goals, progress reports, and general information resources. 

As a parent, you can find comfort in knowing that you’ll be kept in the loop throughout the process. If you’re not getting updates from the SLP or school, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions.

Ways SLPs Can Help Students With Disorders, Disabilities, and Special Needs

SLPs treat a diverse range of disorders. Some treatment plans are relatively mild, like basic speech therapy. Other disorders, like dysphagia, are a bit more complex. 

Examples of disorders and disabilities that may qualify for speech-language therapy include:

  • Autism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Hearing loss
  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Dysphagia
  • Cleft palate
  • Cognitive-linguist conditions
  • Dyslexia
  • Language disorders
  • Social communication disorders
  • Auditory processing disorders

Since speech therapy is tailored to meet each child’s specific needs, there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment or program to follow. A child who stutters will have very different needs than a child who has dyslexia. 

SLPs can help students build their vocabulary, boost phonological skills, understand inferences, and improve reading comprehension. Depending on the disorder, the SLP can teach children how to improve their reading skills, improve communication skills, and learn to express complex ideas. 


Speech-language pathology is a broad term that covers a wide range of scientific and therapeutic elements. But don’t let this overwhelm you. When it comes to speech-language pathology and special education, here are the most important takeaways. If you think your child has a speech, language, or communication disorder, it’s important to get them diagnosed right away. Starting treatment early can help prevent lifelong learning disabilities. 

If you’re interested in becoming a speech pathologist, there are lots of different career paths. But I urge you to consider a role in special education. Leave me a comment or question below, I’d love to hear from you!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

Want to get in touch?

I'm happy to help however I can. Email me at hello at behaviorist .com.

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