By Megan Pedigo, Director of Marketing, Easterseals Central Illinois
I am the mom of energetic, 5-year-old twins, and the Director of Marketing for Easterseals Central Illinois. Since starting at Easterseals a few years ago, I have been able to use my experiences as a parent to put myself in the shoes of some of our families. Through observing therapy sessions at our location, trying activities with my own kids at home, and getting to know the families of children we serve, I feel very connected to the services provided by our therapists at Easterseals.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home-orders, everyone was working remotely. Because of this I felt disconnected from the experience Easterseals families were having with telehealth. How did it look? How do you log on? How do you expect a child to sit still for an hour in front of a screen and do therapy?
Because observation was not an option, my family offered to volunteer as participants and gave telehealth a shot. Together, we participated in a Speech Therapy Session, Counseling Session, Physical Therapy Session, and Occupational Therapy Session. Here are 10 things I learned from my telehealth experience.
- The child leads the session. When one of my daughters interrupted the farm animal sound game to talk about her new sloth book, our therapist asked to see it. When my girls ran off, the therapist and I talked about their speech until they came back. She said that this was common—most sessions involve activities with the child, and conversations with the parents. Therapists have a set plan and activities for the session, but they are flexible and dynamic, allowing the child to lead and using their individual interests to sneak in therapy.
- Sessions are active. “How can you do therapy over the computer?” This was a question I had, along with so many parents who have children receiving therapy, particularly physical and occupational therapy. In short, Easterseals Central Illinois uses play based therapy. Play-Doh, bubbles, favorite stuffed animals….therapists make a therapy session an hour packed with a child’s favorite activities. As the weather got warmer, therapists could go outside and see kids ride their bikes, play on swing sets, and run in the grass.
- Sessions are done in a natural environment. The parent coaching model has always been a cornerstone of pediatric therapy at Easterseals Central Illinois. However, it can be hard to translate what the therapist does in a clinical setting to at home activities. Telehealth is bridging that gap. The therapist and the caregiver work together, as a team. The therapist provides support during the session (and offline) to help build caregiver confidence in implementing the strategies on their own. This helps the child use these strategies for success throughout the week, rather than just during the session. This therapy is also happening in the child’s natural environment, with their toys and their caregivers. Challenges may present themselves more prominently in the home, which can make therapy more effective.
- Therapists are patient. At our first session, both girls were seated and ready to engage. That lasted about five minutes. They kept interrupting the therapist, shouting out things and running off camera. By the fourth session, I was logging on right at start time and wrangling them into the room within camera view. I had to resist the urge to interrupt the session and put my girls back on track. Being coworkers, and understanding I was trying to get a feel for telehealth—the therapists all told me to chill. They are able to engage with the child on their terms and guide them back to tasks. As many families know, therapists are highly regarded, sometimes worshipped by the kids they serve. If your child wants to show off their trophies from years of soccer, go for it. If your child is having a meltdown, leave the camera on and let the therapist observe. If your child only wants to play with you and not engage with the therapist, back up and let the therapist observe your play and guide it along.
- The technology is user friendly. I will admit, I struggled with the technology a little at first. We had four telehealth sessions with Easterseals in one week and each had a specific link. Once I figured that out, it was seamless. My recommendation: as soon as you get the link, create a calendar entry and put the link in there. Set a reminder for 15 minutes before so you have time to transition your kids out of their activity and prep for therapy.
- Location and attitude matter. For the first two sessions, we cleared out the space, had materials ready, and discussed expectations beforehand. The last two sessions I was running late, scrambling, and tossing the girls in front of the computer at a different location. It showed. They were more distracted, and I had to run around getting materials rather than engaging in the session. The girls got less out of it, and I was having to ask the therapist to repeat a lot.
- Use stationary technology. Cell phones and tablets are an option for telehealth. However, a laptop worked best for us, and same goes for a lot of families. With facetime, video calling, and games being played on phones and iPads, kids are used to grabbing the device and walking around. If a laptop is unavailable, make sure the phone or tablet is at a place where the child cannot grab it and walk around with it. This will also help the session run smoother.
- Therapists are able to address common challenges in real time. Have you ever found yourself having a hard time explaining a challenge you are having at home to a teacher or therapist? Much like the praise for ‘natural environment,’ therapists are getting a firsthand look at the child’s day to day life. Parents can show the therapist a commonly occurring challenge in the home, and the therapist can address it in real time. The child can work on asking for a snack with their mom in their own kitchen. They can work on climbing their own stairs, or getting dressed in their own room.
- Limit your distractions. I am guilty of being pulled away from their therapy session because of a phone notification or laptop ping. As the session got going and my girls were engaging with the therapists, I noticed my mind wandering and my phone magically ending up in my hand. I missed what they were doing, and lost the opportunity to ask questions or learn how to implement at home. I got the most out of their sessions when I left my phone in the other room on silent.
- The benefits are emerging. Telehealth is not a replacement for in-person therapy. However, there are a number of benefits emerging. With participation rates soaring, we are able to see how things like parent coaching and treating the child in their natural environment are improving the child’s progress. We are able to take down geographic barriers and optimize therapist schedules. As we slowly begin to open up for in-person therapy to resume, telehealth will remain a key part of our service delivery model.
This pandemic has put everyone in a situation they never thought they would be in. Parents, who are already juggling many tasks, are now taking on even more. Telehealth is not something many of us thought would be a huge part of our weekly lives, but with patience, individual adjustments, and benefits emerging, it is something that will carry us all into the future of pediatric therapy.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Megan at MPedigo@eastersealsci.com or give Easterseals a call at 309-686-1177 to get started on your own telehealth journey.