Danielle Malouff has always had a knack for helping people communicate. She noticed her gift as a child — and tried to help her uncle and sister who had speech difficulties.
“My uncle had Down syndrome and I’d ask my grandma and my mom, “Why does he talk like that?” said Malouff, now a bilingual speech-language pathologist with The Resource Exchange. “One day he was brushing his teeth and I looked in his mouth to figure out what was wrong — I was naturally curious.
“I also had a sister seven years younger than me. She couldn’t say her Rs and we’d say she sounded like she was from Boston. Now I know it’s normal, but back then I would say, ‘Do this, ‘errr’ and show her how to do it in the mirror.’”
She parlayed that curiosity into a degree, graduating with a bachelor’s in speech, language and hearing sciences from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1999.
Malouff spent two years completing one-on-one work with children with disabilities and worked for the Boys and Girls Club in Denver. She returned to school in 2001, earning a master’s in communication disorders and sciences from Wichita State University in Kansas in 2003.
In her first job after grad school, she worked as a bilingual speech-language pathologist with Adams County School District 14 in Commerce City, assisting children with educational issues and helping bilingual students to understand their English assignments.
After starting a family in 2006, Malouff moved home to Pueblo. She worked as a speech-language pathologist for Pueblo School District 60, where her caseload included early intervention work with preschoolers and elementary school students. But she wanted to focus on speech and development in even younger kids — so after five years at District 60, she moved to Colorado Springs to work at The Resource Exchange, with children up to 3 years old.
“I knew that I could do the most with those younger kids, so that’s why I went with [The Resource Exchange] — for that early intervention piece,” Malouff said.
TRE caters to nearly 9,000 infants, children, teenagers and adults who have disabilities, delays, mental health or long-term care needs. For Malouff’s early intervention work, she focuses on those with speech and/or developmental delays, language disorders or communication difficulties.
Her caseload includes 16 families and she spends an hour per week with each. Five of the 16 families speak languages other than English including Spanish, which Malouff speaks, and Telugu, an Indian dialect.
Malouff spoke with the Business Journal about work during the pandemic, navigating the language barrier and decompressing from her work.
How did you know you had the love and patience to work with those who needed this help?
I always liked to help my younger siblings and cousins but I also know it’s so frustrating when you can’t communicate. It’s such a deep human need. I was like, ‘I’m good at language and I’m good at getting these pieces of what it takes to communicate,’ and I was learning how to use those natural abilities.
When did you realize this was something you wanted to do?
I didn’t know what it was, but looking back I was always doing speech pathology. I think I naturally tried to jump in and say people’s sentences for them even when they didn’t want me to do that. As I studied more I noticed that speech pathology was what I’d always done, so I should probably do it professionally. Everything was just coming together for me. I was like, ‘Can I be a Spanish or psychology major?’ That was when I was struggling to figure out what I would do. ... As I figured out what speech pathology was, all these things just started clicking. I used to help my uncle who had Down syndrome and I remember being interested as a 7-year-old in why my baby sister was babbling. All the pieces fell in line as I learned more about it. Wanting to help people and doing hospital versus school jobs seemed like a good fit for me.
Did COVID throw a wrench in things? I guess before the pandemic most work was face-to-face?
It was before COVID, but since then, we’ve gone full telehealth. That was a big change for us. The good thing is we do coaching methods so even before COVID, I tried to teach families to do these things — and this made it really tangible. Now I’m not there so they have to work with their kids with me in the background saying, ‘Hey, try this,’ or ‘What do you think if you did this?’ or how to get them engaged in a different way. I have a lot of experience in speech language pathology, but I also have my own kids and I know how hard it is to run a household — and it makes me work well with the families.
How do you go about preparing lessons or training to help people?
Now I work for The Resource Exchange and that’s a community centerboard for people with disabilities. I’m specifically in the early intervention — that’s why I say I get to work with the babies. But what it really means is I’m teaching their parents and grandparents and siblings. I recently came from a house where this 2-year-old is delayed and not talking enough for his age and isn’t able to communicate, the whole family is super involved. The 4-year-old sister is there talking with him. I have to plan to work with even the siblings and help them to understand when he tells the sister ‘Bop’ that he’s trying to tell her ‘Stop.’ She laughs, but he gets frustrated because he’s trying to communicate with her [to tell her] to stop grabbing his arms. Sometimes it’s about making a connection and building relationships. But there’s research about how to help with sibling dynamics and how to make a family culture chart so other kids aren’t overly frustrating the baby we are trying to teach. When I leave after the hour, it’s up to them to do the rest for the week. I also work with families where the kid might have autism, really holding their hand through the process of exploring a diagnosis and getting evaluated with doctors and what the resources are once you get a diagnosis. Some of that is community work and knowing which clinics speak Spanish and which would be more conducive to this family who is really worried about the diagnosis.
Working with families who speak other languages must be challenging.
Part of my specialty is I enjoy working with different cultures. I speak Spanish so I get all the Spanish-speaking families so I can work with them in their language. I have had families who don’t speak the same language as me and I’ve worked with interpreters. And during the pandemic when we couldn’t go to a house, we used a translating company, GlobeLink Foreign Language Center. The person was calling from somewhere in India and there were two phones and a computer and [we were] trying to make the phones hear each other. Technical difficulties definitely occur. For me it’s fun, but I love languages so it’s a challenge of learning new words in some obscure language I’m only exposed to for one hour a week. I’d write down some words because it’s important to have an ear when you’re talking about a kid babbling. When a kid says ‘Bop’ in English I can figure out that he meant ‘Stop.’ But if it’s a language where I have no idea what that might have sounded like, I’d depend on the parents to be good listeners — even though they’re not trained — or for the interpreter to figure out what word that sounded like in their language. It’s tough when you don’t speak the same language, but having a good interpreter and building a good relationship with the parents helps you bridge that gap.
This must get complicated when young siblings are involved.
I feel very comfortable ‘momming’ all the kids. I’ve worked in schools and done a lot of education. I just go directly with the little kid and explain it to them. Hopefully I can continue to build a relationship with them so they can see me as a friend and know they can listen to me and trust me. I’m not just talking down to them or reprimanding them. I have to offer younger kids a different way to help so I have to say something like, ‘Oh, it is kind of funny that he said ‘Bop.’ But I bet you can figure out what word that is, because you’re so smart and you can teach him to say the word.’ I have to get creative and it’s always about building a relationship where they trust me as someone who’s doing something for their own good, and not just to put them in check.
Does it get tough to see families who have a child who’s struggling?
It does and certain families tug on your heart a little more. I have this one family where the baby has cochlear implants because she was born deaf and she had surgery when she was one. We’re teaching her to hear and listen. Her mom’s goal is for her to be able to talk, not just [use sign language]. We definitely go through the emotions with any child with a disability. The parents have to go through a process of grief where they have to let go of, ‘This is what I thought my child was going to do, communicate or learn’ — and they have to let go of that dream. I’ve sat there and tried not to cry as we went through the emotions. You have to hold the space for the family and hold their hand through it. It might be a harder path but it’s still a good path, and they still have a wonderful baby you connect with.