Demand for speech therapists and special needs teachers in Estonia grows

A classroom in Estonia.
A classroom in Estonia. Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

The University of Tartu is increasing the number of places available on its speech therapy and special needs teaching courses to ease the shortage of support specialists.

However, experts say that instead of increasing admissions, clarifications are required regarding division of labor between speech therapists and special needs teachers, with efforts also needed to prevent them from leaving kindergartens and schools for the private sector.

Both speech therapists and special needs teachers recognize that there is currently a growing need for their assistance.

"We certainly have more children with attention deficit disorder as well as children on the autism spectrum. The problems have really become more complex compared to before," said Marika Padrik, associate professor of speech and language therapy at the University of Tartu.

"In the past, parents had more time to spend with their children, whereas now they are very busy and just need to be made aware (if their child has a) speech problem. If parents talk to their children too little or don't seek enough help, then there is a problem right away," said speech therapist Katre Kandimaa.

Experts say that the shortage of support specialists has worsened since the implementation of inclusive education.

"Whereas before, children who needed more support from specialists were (studying) in separate groups and environments, now we have inclusive education and there could be one child (needing specialist assistance) in each class or group. This means that there should definitely be one (specialist) in every institution, but there are not enough in each place," said Pille Häidkind, director for the master's program in special education and speech therapy at the University of Tartu.

There are almost 600 kindergartens in Estonia but only 399 speech therapists. More and more of those studying to become speech therapists are opting to work at private clinics instead of kindergartens or schools, because of the low salaries there.

"Speaking of lines, it's also absolutely incredible to me that in a big city like Tallinn, for example, there are a hundred people waiting in line at a private clinic," said Kandimaa.

"I know of areas where there are no speech therapists at all. I have children from Põlva, Jõgeva and Tõrva. It's just that mothers say they can't get speech therapy (for their children) in their local area,"  Kandimaa added.

This fall, the University of Tartu will admit a record number of 30 students to its master's program in speech and language therapy. However, academics believe that rather than increasing the number of students on courses, a review of the way work is distributed is necessary.

"At the moment, it is simply the case that even the smallest developmental problem a child has - including, for example, problems when learning to read and write - is still traditionally referred to a speech therapist. And this is not sustainable," said Padrik


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Editor: Michael Cole

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