Brilla Brilla Estrellita

By Laine Zizka

Jordan Zatopek, a graduate speech-language pathology student, providing therapy to a group of children at the Boulevard Heights School.

Jordan Zatopek, a graduate speech-language pathology student, provides therapy to a group of children at the Boulevard Heights School. The Davies School of Communication Sciences & Disorders partners with the Fort Worth Independent School District to provide speech and language therapy to bilingual and Spanish-speaking children.

Four young boys walk like slow-moving astronauts around paper cutouts of stars after timidly whispering “me toca” – “my turn.”

It’s a small moment, but a significant one in these kids’ path to better speech, language and interaction. Their voices grow clearer and more confident as they begin to sing “Brilla Brilla Estrellita” – a Spanish version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

“The reason we do therapy in Spanish is because research has shown that if we use the home language, the results of therapy for a child that has speech and language delays or disorders is more effective,” said Irmgard Payne, an assistant professor of professional practice at the Davies School of Communication Sciences & Disorders and the program supervisor.

For eight years now, TCU’s Davies School of Communication Sciences & Disorders has brought graduate students and local children together with their Ranitas en El Campo program. Partnered with Fort Worth ISD at the Boulevard Heights School on El Campo Avenue, the program has reached dozens of local bilingual children, mostly preschoolers. “Little frogs” receive speech therapy in both English and Spanish from speech-language pathology graduate students pursuing the bilingual emphasis.

“It’s wonderful because it benefits the Fort Worth ISD; they’re able to see more children that are bilingual because there is a reduced number of bilingual speech language pathologists compared to the regular,” said Payne. “It helps us because it provides an opportunity for students to do their clinical practicum with that clientele.”

That win-win happens twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, as the program’s six graduate students learn to evaluate patients as well as administer individual and group therapy in both Spanish and English. This hands-on learning helps them fulfill their requisite clinical hours with Spanish-speaking and bilingual clientele.

“Not all graduate programs offer such hands-on externships with bilingual children, especially from the beginning of the program,” said bilingual speech-language pathology alumna Krista Burdick ‘18, who chose TCU specifically for this program.

The clinic is open to children in the school district, starting at age three, to be evaluated and receive services. With Fort Worth’s large bilingual and Spanish-speaking populations, Ranitas is a perfect fit.

Mondays are devoted to evaluations. Graduate students work in pairs, with one assessing the child while the other interviews the parent in whichever language is most convenient for them. Students establish rapport through play-based interaction and transition into assessment to determine if the child has a language delay or disorder.

Wednesdays are when therapy happens.

Speech-language pathology graduate students using songs, play and props to help children overcome speech and language difficulties

Speech-language pathology graduate students use songs, play and props to help children overcome speech and language difficulties. During each therapy session, clients receive 30 minutes of individual attention and 30 minutes of group therapy.

Individual therapy comes first, targeting the personal speech-language goals of each child. Then, group therapy, where play and themes are integrated into the activities – from songs to acting to crafting – to teach important components of grammar and vocabulary to the students.

“They get to learn a song from every theme,” explained Payne. “There’s that continuity of the vocabulary, of the concepts. I think that’s what’s so great for our little froggies.”

As for the parents? They love it.

“They say that the children start speaking more,” Payne said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that this is the first opportunity for children to be in a group setting with other children.”

Payne describes it as a no brainer – the schools, children and students all benefit.

“For our students, it’s the very first time doing clinical practicum,” said Payne. “It’s a nice, consistent, predictable environment for them. For the child, obviously they get great services. They build a relationship very quickly, great rapport within a clinical session.”

For students like Burdick, the program is impacting the rest of their lives

“I aspire to work in a school district with a high Hispanic population, so that I may evaluate and provide therapy to bilingual and monolingual Spanish-speaking students,” Burdick said. “I would also like to work with young adults in transition programs in secondary education.”

Payne hopes the program grows to include more children in the district, but, for now, it is still a light in many people’s lives.