A Look at School Support Systems for English Language Learners

The goal of a school counselor is to help all students — including English language learners (ELLs) or bilingual students — succeed. ELLs may face cultural differences, language barriers, and immigrant-related trauma. Here, we explore how school counselors can work with speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and mental health counselors to help multicultural students thrive.

Working with Speech-Language Pathologists

speech-language pathologist (SLP) is a highly trained professional who works with people of all ages to evaluate and treat specific issues with speech and language. When working with English language learners, speech-language pathologists determine which students have a speech or language disorder, versus which are just learning a new language. ELLs may face the overwhelming challenge of adjusting to a new school, often in a new culture, while learning a new language — a point at which SLPs can work with school counselors.

Because a school counselor has typically already been working with such a student, they can provide the information an SLP may need to determine if the student requires specific treatment. They can also work with an SLP to connect with parents and teachers on the student’s particular needs related to language and speech, ultimately creating a balanced plan of action that leads to success for that student.

Increasing diversity in schools means SLPs have a growing responsibility to provide culturally competent services to students. They should work with school counselors to determine the influence language barriers and learning English has on each student’s academic outcome and personal success.

Working with Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists (OTs) work with people to improve their ability to perform daily living and working tasks. In schools, OTs support students in their daily routines. This can include classroom and extracurricular activities, lunchtime, and after-school activities. They help students with study skills, self-care, social interaction, problem-solving, and career development. They may work with parents, teachers, school counselors, and speech-language pathologists to address a student’s needs.

As ELLs move through the school system, they may face additional challenges due to cultural differences, language barriers, or disability. Although OTs typically work with students with disabilities, a school counselor may enlist the help of an OT for students who need additional support in the general educational environment.

An OT needs special training and education to meet their clients’ needs, therefore a master’s degree is required. Many OTs go on to pursue a doctoral degree in occupational therapy with even more specific training. With this expertise, an OT can evaluate a student’s strengths, abilities, and needs and develop a plan with the school counselor and other professionals such as SLPs, to help the student thrive. For a multicultural student, this may include creating and organizing classroom strategies to support social and emotional learning, such as teaching breathing techniques to a Spanish-speaking ELL who gets nervous before taking a test in English. Multicultural awareness and competency are crucial in the role of an occupational therapist.

Working with Mental Health Counselors

mental health counselor works with people of all ages, helping lead them to overall wellness. Although mental health counselors work outside the school system, school counselors are encouraged to work with them to meet the needs of their students. 

The 9.9 million students in the U.S. whose primary language is not English may face stressors unique to their situation, including poverty and cultural differences. This puts them at increased risk of poor academic performance and behavioral problems. These students are also the least likely to receive outside mental health care.

School counselors are in a unique position to identify potential mental health conditions before they interfere with a student’s success. Although school counselors’ primary focus is short-term therapy during the school years, they are expected to, if necessary. Intervention could include the help of a speech-language pathologist, an occupational therapist, or a psychologist. The primary goal is for the school and mental health counselor to work together to provide affordable, accessible care.

ELL students face unique challenges in the school system. These include cultural differences, language barriers, poverty and lack of resources, and disabilities and disorders. A school counselor is often the first contact for students seeking help. With the assistance of speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and mental health counselors, a school counselor makes sure the needs of each student are met, no matter their background.