Preschool Distance Learning

image of a woman in silhouette holding a talker up to model on webcam

Let me start with this: distance learning is made possible for our families because I run a preschool classroom, not a discrete trial instruction classroom. My focus is creating access to the rich literacy, math, and play-based experiences that are the foundation for a life-long love of learning. Is distance learning perfect? No. I would much rather have my students in my classroom every day, laughing and making memories together. Is it possible? Yes-ish, or at least as best we can, given the circumstances that we’re in.

Yes-ish: Because distance learning is inequitable. The end. Some families have easy access to internet and multiple devices. Some do not. Some families have time or a stay-at-home parent. Some do not. Some are more worried about health, job security, and food on the table. Understandable. Some students are able to sit and work for a little while. Others need direct adult support for every activity. Some know many words on their device, while others are very emergent communicators. A good classroom for our students is a classroom where universal design and accommodations create access. And not all of the elements needed transfer easily to distance learning.

Yes-ish: Because to try is better than not to try. When possible, I’ve done what I can to make distance learning more equitable. I use a platform that I know all of my families are able to access. I assist them to fill out the information needed to get technology support through the county. I use a combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning, a combination of hands-on and sit-down activities, so that each family is able to flex learning around their needs. But it’s not perfect. And any conversation about distance learning has to acknowledge that. It’s doing the best we can with the hand we’ve been given.

Our Distance Learning Plan

AAC System Support – We started a video-based parent training on AAC earlier this year, and finished out the training modules as schools went into closures. Every two weeks, I will send an activity template that encourages modeling and creating communication opportunities at a specific activity or routine. I also post a video explaining or modeling how to do this, pulling from videos I have of their own students when possible.

Sample Schedule – I sent a sample morning schedule home to families who may be struggling to figure out how to structure their day. I was torn about this, because I don’t want to put pressure or stress on families. But several families asked specifically for some guidance around this. The schedule alternates a more structured activity (e.g., reading a book together) with child-directed play. For example, breakfast – movement activity – literacy choice – play – snack – movement activity – math choice – play.

Activity Menus – This is my favorite. It’s my favorite because 1) it requires no technology or computer, 2) there’s built-in flexibility, and 3) this is where I can list ideas for hands-on activities. I am creating an activity menu every two weeks for families. There are five activity ideas each for literacy, math, sensory, and outside play. Yes, that means that half the menu is movement-oriented. It was a deliberate decision. Activity menus allow me to encourage and describe the more hands-on ways of learning that we love in early childhood in a way that isn’t otherwise easy to capture in a “packet”. All activities have been done previously at school. They typically range from 3-10 minutes in duration. They also can be repeated frequently.

Daily Prompt – Every day I post 1-2 prompts to See-Saw for a quick daily check-in with families. Some days, I connect it to the Activity Menu. For example, I shared pictures of home obstacle courses for inspiration on Friday. I’ve also connected it to communication, such as asking students to share what their favorite snack is using the picture communication board or their talkers. Finally, I’ve sent videos of read-alouds, modeling AAC while singing a favorite song on YouTube, and puppets practicing articulation. All quick and easy. The goal here is not to overwhelm families with a jam-packed schedule, but to provide a variety of opportunities. I want families to be able to design their day. Do they only have time for their child to watch video read-aloud while they fold clothes? Great, done. Do they need more things to fill their day, or are they worried about a specific academic skill? Great, we are building a whole library of prompts that you can go back and revisit anytime you want.

Manipulatives – Guys, if you could see the backpacks. When we first closed, I crammed everything I could. Puzzles. Bingo Dotters. Watercolor sets. Paintbrushes. In an ideal world, I would love to make a little “distance learning kit” that I could drop off at homes. Bubbles. Shaving cream. Water beads. Play-Doh. I would fill it with so much sensory. Preschoolers benefit so much from that sort of hands-on, get messy play. Rich sensory experiences provide communication opportunities, language development, science exploration, build math concepts, and strengthen motor skills — and fun. I’m not sure our society gets this, with how much we have to fight for developmentally appropriate practice. It’s something I am trying to stress with my “everything is optional” and “play is central” and “look, so much movement” activity boards. Because it’s true. Play is the work of childhood.

Office Hours – I’ve set virtual up office hours twice a week where I am available for parents to come, ask questions, share experiences, etc. I am pretty available on See-Saw via messaging, but wanted another option. I think sometimes families are afraid to bother me with requesting an appointment or time to talk, so I am hoping this eases their mind. I have them set up once for the morning and once for the evening so that families can choose the time that works best for them.

Virtual Circle Time – We have circle time twice a week right now. It’s filled with music, singing, and dancing — and, of course, lots of modeling on talkers. Even our stories are video stories. I wanted to make it super enticing and enchanting. I really didn’t want my families to have to spend time fighting their child to attend. I don’t even do that in real life… We use sensory regulation, children’s interests, and choice-making to entice children to circle. It’s just that there’s a lot less opportunity for hands-on action in virtual circle time. So we’re focusing on embedding literacy and counting concepts in our favorite songs and stories as we come together each week.

Visual Supports – I’ve offered home picture schedules, first/then boards, and other visual supports to families via digital access or mail.

image of a school bus outline with instructions below it: color your bus, match the letters, and add pictures of yourself or your family

Optional Activities – Finally, for families who want more, I am posting additional — but very optional — activities on See-Saw. I post a teaser each Monday on activities that are available, and students / families can choose to log-in to complete them or not. These tend to be more structured activities, but still short. There’s currently an activity for matching letters and one for creating your own school bus (including adding pictures of yourself or your family). They can be completed one per day, all in one day, randomly throughout the week. Some families have asked for the code to log-in. Some have not. It’s all good.

Throw in a ton of “this is optional” and “do what you need” and “I’m here for you” reminders… Then that basically sums up our current distance learning plan. I hope it sparks some imagination for you if you’ve been struggling with how to reach your littlest friends or your students with higher support needs. May you find the right combination of magic to support your families, whether they wish for a lot or a little.

Comprehensive Literacy: Our Preschool Day

a pile of alphabet stamps and a red ink pad

I’m in a virtual book study exploring Koppenhaver & Erickson’s latest work, Comprehensive Literacy for All. I can’t wait to share the things I learn from the text and the discussion. One of the early elements that always leads to a lot of conversation is around the time piece. Erickson & Koppenhaver recommend a minimum of two hours of literacy instruction per day. This can be incredibly overwhelming when teachers are new to literacy instruction in the special education classroom, but we need to remember that it’s not necessarily one solid two hour block. And, even more importantly, it’s definitely NOT two hours of the drill or discrete trial instruction that many of our students have previously experienced with literacy. It is immersion in real reading, and real writing. It is authentic. It matters. 

Our preschool literacy instruction looks different than an elementary school literacy block, because we’re preschool. The primary occupation of preschoolers is to play, not to sit at a table or to complete numerous teacher-directed activities. That being said, it’s still very common in early childhood special education classrooms for literacy instruction to be reliant on rote memorization or occur significantly less than in a general education classroom — especially in special education classrooms that serve students with complex bodies or communication needs.

I get it… We aren’t really taught about emergent literacy, supporting literacy in students with complex needs, or meaningful literacy instructions in our special education programs. I’ve been in special education programs across 3 different universities in 2 different states, including programs that led to both general education and special education licensure. I’ve still self-taught most of what I understand about literacy. Our kids have the right to the same high quality tools, the same comprehensive approach that their peers access each day. As such, I thought it would be helpful to showcase the ways that we target literacy skills across the day. 

Of note, I teach in the most restrictive preschool public school placement in my county. All of my students use AAC systems and assistive technology tools to participate in various parts of their day. I mention this because no student is too anything for literacy instruction. Ever. 

Arrival

  • Personal Belongings: Students practice name recognition by locating their cubby to place their items. 
  • Sign In / Out: We also have had students “sign in” by moving their name, writing their name, or otherwise indicating that they are here. We do a similar activity at the end of the day. Signing one’s name is NOT a hand-over-hand act. It’s not about perfect letter formation. It’s about creating meaningful connections about print — what letters mean, why we write them, what our names are… It’s really important that it’s not just a disconnected routine, but that there is a purpose. I’ve used sign in to help students locate their cubbies, to sign up for an activity, or to help me do attendance. Students typically sign independently first (which could be one dot on a page). We then model how we would write their name. This is a great opportunity for use of alternative pencils. 
  • Schedules: We make our individual schedules with the students each morning. It not only gives us a chance to talk about each day, but to also showcase another purpose behind text and how it can convey meaning. Although our schedules do use pictures (as the goal is to be able to use them independently), we draw attention to the print and the letters. We also can showcase how we read from top to bottom. 

Transitions

  • Quick activities: We have recently incorporated activity cards into that transition “down time” where students are waiting. We started after seeing a similar activity in an Erikson math video. The use of a visual to reference, combined with communication devices, makes this a more accessible “transition filler” for students. We might look at letter cards and name them, find letter sounds on the keyboard, or think about words that start with certain sounds and letters. If students do not know, then we model and talk about it together. It is not repeated drill of a letter. It is not hand-over-hand “this is the right answer” errorless learning. It is a quick check in, a moment of connection, a chance to chat about letters, numbers, and provide a little structure to time that can be hard for our students to manage independently. 

Clean-Up

  • Clean-up Chart: During clean up time, students have assigned jobs. These jobs rotate every week. They can find their job by looking at our clean-up chart that is posted on our projection screen. We use names of students (not their photos) so that they are learning another way print can be meaningful and provide needed information. 

Circle Time Activities

  • Calendar / Message: We start with a 5 day, Monday through Friday calendar in our circle. As the year goes on, we are moving into the full month. But it was really important to me that calendar be something that didn’t just act as a vehicle for literacy and math, but made sense to their lives. I wanted it to feel important and manageable. Our calendar has a picture of what they will be doing in art, any special activities, etc… As a shared writing activity, we use that calendar to create a message about the day. 
  • Words of the Week: We have 2-3 core words every week that we highlight at every circle time. We look at the picture and the text at circle, while I model the words for each child. Some students like to model them for their peers. These words are typically connected to the songs that we are singing. 
  • Question of the Day: We read a question together, and then students respond by moving their names. The question is typically connected to daily routines, special activities, or our thematic content. We mostly ask preference / opinion questions as our students are very emergent communicators, but mix in some fact-based questions at times (e.g., “Which one of these is a dinosaur?”) The question is another opportunity to use their name for meaning, but we also connect the different answer choices to letters and print. For example, one question was, “What do you like to do outside?” We had run, walk, and climb. We talked about each option, modeled it on the talker, and modeled the sounds we hear at the beginning of each word. 
  • Voting: We love to vote! We vote on which songs we will sing, on which activities we should do for sensory, on what we should cook, and so much more. Voting, like question of the day, is a chance for students to make meaningful, real choices using their names and other print concepts. 
  • Songs: We always connect songs with their titles — and sometimes their written lyrics. I’ll also search for our songs on YouTube, while modeling sounding out the word, finding the right letter to enter, and using that search engine. Once again — it’s meaningful, it matters, it’s important to the students, but it also is a fantastic vehicle for building a lifelong literacy foundation. 
  • Signing Out: 
  • Literacy Concepts: I didn’t highlight the specific literacy skills for each activity, because they really have an endless number of possibilities. On some days, we focus on letter recognition and letter sounds. We might find the letters in our message, in the calendar, or in our schedule. At other times, we focus on tracking text left to right. Students take turns to track it with pen, pointer, etc. We’ve also clapped the syllables for different words, counted the number of words in out sentence, and practiced touching one word at a time. 

Art

  • Directions: We use visual supports for our art activities, which typically includes a model. I always write short directions to go along with the visual. The staff member leading that activity draws attention not just to the picture, but to the printed directions. Although preschoolers cannot independently read directions, that’s not the point. The point is to model all the different ways that print adds meaning to our lives. The point is that students need to see us reading, writing, and participating in literacy experiences for a wide variety of purposes.
  • Tell me about it… During and after art, we always encourage students to tell us about their artwork with their talkers. We try really hard to keep this open-ended, and so we might say, “I notice lots of…” and then describe colors, shapes, sizes, etc… We don’t want to tell them what their art is, but we do want to model the language used. We write down ANYTHING they dictate to us. ANYTHING. If that means I write, “one one one one one one one one one”, then that’s what I write. I ask questions. I wonder out loud. I show them how much it means to me that they are sharing their words with me. 
  • Signing: We always encourage students to sign their work! Similar to above, it’s not about hand over hand writing a name. It’s about saying, “This is mine! I did this!” Through repeated opportunity and modeling, we scaffold towards writing their name in more standard form over time — a process that all kids go through. 

iPad Center

  • Activities in the iPad center are super individualized to each student. We have apps that cover a wide variety of rich experiences. Students scribble, draw, and make stories in alphabet and story apps. They match and sort (which is a huge favorite in our room) in ways that include letters and words. The Endless Reader apps are also a fan favorite, especially when each letter makes its own sound. We do also have some interactive books on iPad, which can be a great gateway for students who are still discovering an interest in reading and listening to stories. 
purple background with blue car picture... black text reads "Car dfg out wear"

Literacy Center

  • Reading – We engage in shared reading activities in groups of 1-3 students. Students also have the ability to self-select books at any time during the day. We are pretty open to self-selection of books happening anytime, anywhere. Shared reading is a different type of experience than just reading the text to students, and I’ll elaborate more on that in another post. 
  • Writing – We engage in shared writing and independent writing several times a week. We use visual structures, assistive technology, and pictures to support students to write. Sometimes we create a story or write sentences together, such as when we each talked about where our monster liked to jump after singing “Five Little Monsters Jumping on the Bed”. At other times, students select images from their week or preferred things and write on their own. This is another process that I’m hoping to expand on in a blog post soon. Because this tends to be a little more teacher-directed, this doesn’t happen every day. With older students, we would likely rotate through this center daily — but we are still preschoolers. We are made to play! 
  • Play – The most important! We have letter toys, letter magnets, giant letters, letter blocks…. We have alphabet dinosaurs, acorns, and lollipops. We have so many alphabet puzzles, from inset piece to 48 piece floor puzzles. We play with song and sound and silly noises. We explore and experiment with letters. We have dry erase markers for coloring on the board. We pull out crayons and shaving cream and play-doh for making scribbles and letters. This is so much more important than any structured writing activity could be at this age!

Pretend Play / Blocks

  • This is probably where our incorporation of print activities is weakest. I have so many ideas on how to incorporate literacy, but it can be really difficult to implement them. For many of my students, pretend play and blocks tends to be more challenging for them (in comparison to visual activities, puzzles, gross motor, etc). When we add the literacy element, such as making a sign for a building, taking a lunch order, or looking in a cookbook, it can become too much or too teacher-directed. It turns from play to work. We are working to choose one embedded activity that we might include per unit. For example, we are adding cookbooks and menus to our kitchen center for the next few weeks. When we talked about sharks and fish, we had hanging charts that students could reference about sharks and fish. The use of these items is often primarily adult modeled at this time. 
  • However, we focus HEAVILY on providing aided language stimulation (adult modeling of student devices). This is an important part of literacy for our students, as the speaking and listening components are essential to being able to convey meaningful ideas through both spoken and written language. Each and every student in our classroom has access to a robust vocabulary AAC system, which means LOTS of words. We model request, comments, questions, protests, social engagement… Our goal is to model language on a device every single time we are talking and interacting with a student. 

Why, yes, we do work.

Disclaimer: Please remember that the work of early childhood is play. All of what I’m about to say is important, for sure, especially for older kids… But also — we need to stop being so focused on work in early childhood. We have pushed down the work expectations more and more each year, but 3, 4, and 5 year olds — even six year olds — should be playing for the bulk of their day. They should be experimenting, exploring, being curious, and living the idea that learning is a fun, full-bodied experience. That learning is something they initiate, they do, they are. Most of our best learning happens way outside of structured work. That is how we create life-long learners.

There have been a lot of questions over the last few weeks about how we engage in students in teacher-supported and teacher-directed learning activities. I think it says a lot about the culture of coercion that can seep into our classrooms, especially in special education, that this question is so pervasive. Before you get defensive, I have been there. I am writing about my past self as much as anything else. It can be hard for me to sit and reflect on the mistakes I’ve made, even when the mistakes are a decade ago. But I’m grateful for the readings, the mentors, and the students who have taught me along the way. And I will forever be committed to doing better in their names. 

Things that I don’t do: withhold all the things a student loves, sanitize the environment, require sitting for instruction, “escape extinction”, physically prompt (force) through all of the actions… And, yes, my students to engage in teacher-directed (I choose the activity) and teacher-supported (we choose the activity together) activities throughout the day. Yes, they work many times throughout the day. Yes, they have expectations and rules. Yes, they learn lots of pre-academic and academic concepts. Yes, you can hold high expectations and meet student needs. Yes, you can accommodate and respect students’ bodies while teaching new concepts. Yes, you can pursue student interests and celebrate who they are.

We focus on relationships and felt safety. Students need to feel safe. Students need to know that they can trust you. Students need to know that you will not harm them, that you will help them self-regulate, that you appreciate and honor their needs. This comes first. No other learning can happen when our stress systems are activated. There’s a reason “connect” is the first step for responding when reading any discipline book that wasn’t written by behaviorists. (I recommend basically everything by Daniel Siegel, by the way.) If we spend the first days, weeks, and months of the school year working on establishing these relationships and building self-regulation skills, that is not lost time

We use visual supports. We have picture schedules, work time schedules, bathroom sequences, visuals for where things belong… We have pictures of what work looks like, what specific expectations look like, what self-regulation can look like… I do not make visuals just for the sake of making visuals. I assess the needs in the classroom and make visuals that will support students to meet expectations. A great example of this are visual cues for directions. In the past, I’ve printed visual cues from TPT — and promptly found that none of my staff were using them. It was overwhelming; it wasn’t targeted to our specific needs. This year, keychain lanyards are specific to our class rules & lining up. These are the times we’ve most found that we need a visual cue. And now they are both used by staff and understood well by students. This means I can’t usually print a bunch of stuff off the internet. I have to custom-make our visuals, and I have to do so many times throughout the year. But they actually work for the needs that come up, and that’s what matters. 

image of two tangrams, one kite and one fire truck, on a table.
This student selects their work time from an array of choices.

We adapt the work to meet the need. I have students who complete 5 work tasks in a row, who work for over 15 minutes, who have to be told, “Please leave work time, because your friend needs to take a turn now.” I also have students who have been working on completing 1-2 actions with an object. Or students who need to take three 15-30 second breaks of running across the room before finishing their work. This is the power of rotating schedules — flexibility to meet student needs. If a student can only work for one minute, then we start with working for one minute. If a student can only do 3-5 pieces of a task, then we might start at 2-4 pieces. We build stamina and engagement over time, rather than forcing a pre-determined time and wondering why students are melting down. Some students prefer to do the hard work first, followed by the easier thing. Others prefer to build momentum by doing easier tasks prior to hard ones. The work itself is also adapted to the student need. For example, if we are sorting letters and numbers at circle time, a student who has trouble scanning an array of 8-10 items may go last — when there are less items to scan. If we are doing finger-painting art projects, but a student detests the feel, we may let them do it with the paint inside a Ziploc. Or just give them a paintbrush, it’s not that big of a deal. 

We pursue student interests. Notice that it doesn’t say use student interests. I don’t artificially stack on interests in an attempt to get students to do what I want. I don’t just stick a picture of Mickey on a folder and call it a day. But we do pursue their strengths and interests. If a student loves to count, then I’m all about building on their math skills and expanding the depth of their counting. If a student loves everything alphabet, then let’s practice problem solving and spatial awareness with alphabet puzzles. Let’s look for letter sounds with magnet letters hidden in our kinetic sand. We can read No David for the four hundredth time. We can match letters and sounds within a book we made about your favorite song. If a student loves the magic of dropping something inside a bin, why not do sorting with these bins instead of plates? My daughter’s OT used to practice categorizing with her favorite television shows, so they could talk about her favorite characters, their catch phrases, how they are alike and different. One of my students loves to make pretend soup. I’m going to the library this week to get cookbooks and picture books that will enrich his already awesome play. These are all authentic tasks, expansions on interests. 

An alphabet puzzle that one student loves to include in their daily work time.

We are flexible about seating. Students don’t have to sit. They can stand. They can sit in a chair. They can sit on a stool. They can sit on the floor. Yes, I have students that get their work tasks, bring them to a preferred part of the floor, and complete all of their work there. It’s fine. People worry about — “but what about when they are 19 and they have to XYZ?” They aren’t 19 now. We have to stop the pushing down of developmental expectations. We don’t get ready to sit at 19 by forcing extended siting at age 4. We get ready by teaching self-regulation, self-advocacy, motor skills, engagement, etc… 

We are thoughtful about scheduling. Most people think of scheduling simply as “if you do the work, then you get this awesome thing”. But that’s not exactly what I mean. When I schedule rotations, I’m very mindful of how, when, and where each student gets placed. Some students need to move their bodies very hard and active before they are able to engage in teacher-directed work, so they may have lots of gross motor play before their work time. Some students need a big chunk of free play time, while others prefer more structured tasks. Some want to complete all of their work at once, while others prefer it split into many sessions. I also work really hard to make sure that no one has to leave a most favorite thing in the world to go to their least favorite thing. Because who would ever want to do that? Mindful scheduling also applies to large groups. I schedule circle at times that will be successful for the biggest chunk of students. Before our morning circle, students may be engaged in gross motor play, sensory manipulatives, or morning snack. Those activities are available to help student self-regulate and adjust to being in the classroom in a way that meets their needs. They are then much more ready to learn and engage in a big group activity. Morning circle tends to be our most successful of all activities because of this. 

image of Abby Cadabby from Sesame Street in 3 different costumes -- witch, orange robot, and wolf-doctor.
Play is the work of childhood; playing dress-up with Abby Cadabby was an October circle time activity.

We talk to our students; we empathize. Hard work is hard! We use “we can do hard things” from Glennon Doyle as a catch phrase all the time. It started in my own family, became a class mantra, and now is even in our student talkers. We all need pep talks and encouragement in our lives. Our students need it too. We talk to them and visualize why something is important. We talk about how work time is like exercise for our brains, making our brain grow in the way that running makes our legs stronger. We talk about how letter sounds help us read words. We empathize with challenges, offer help, and problem solve together. Our students also do not have to be able to talk back yet for us to have this conversation. It is basic respect. 

We are mindful of anxiety, apraxia, and pathological demand avoidance. I’m not going to go into detail about each of these things, because they are all their own long blog. But I think it’s important for special education teachers and support personnel to become more educated about each of these — what they can look like, what they feel like, and how they can be accommodated. Work with occupational therapists, speech therapists, and other knowledgable professionals. Read the words of autistic and disabled adults who write about their experiences. For some students, it can be as simple as asking a question and providing plenty of wait time, rather than giving a demand and expecting it to be completed. Others may need a lot more accommodations. That’s okay. That’s what we’re here for. 

What Work Time Looks Like

Work time can look very different depending on the students’ needs. 

Student A. We approach SA with their schedule. “Let’s check our schedule, it’s time for reading.” Student A takes the picture from the schedule and matches it to the books center. We point to the visual “choose a book”. SA looks at the books but does not make a choice. We wait. After 15-20 seconds, SA picks up one book. We bring their book to the table, pull out a seat, and ask SA to sit with us. They walk to the table and open their book, which happens to be a favorite. We browse the pages together, using core words to describe what we see, pointing out letters, and asking students where various things are. When SA touches the words on a page, we write an observation note. After we have flipped through their favorite alphabet book several times, SA looks to us, looks to their talker, and says “go”. We say, “Yes, of course, go. Can you put your book away?” We hand the book to SA. They put their book on the shelf and run to gross motor center. 

image of a page of numbers with blanks to fill in: 3,4..., 8,9...
exploring number sequences with a number-loving student

Student B. We approach SB with their schedule. “It’s time for work!” Student B is playing with an alphabet puzzle and just put the letter J in the puzzle. “Oh, I see you are finishing an alphabet puzzle. Let’s finish the puzzle, and then it’s work time.” Staff allow Student B to finish placing all of the letters in the puzzle without interruption. Once SB is at a stopping point, staff show the schedule to SB again and offer their hand. SB takes the adult’s hand and walks to work time. When they get there, a shape and color sorting activity is on the table. SB stands at the table and begins to look at each shape. They pick it up, twirl it, and examine it from multiple angles. Staff allow this exploration of materials, because, really, why not? After several minutes, SB attempts to put the square in the circle hole spot. They try this multiple times and then put the piece back down. Staff state, “Hmm… let’s try a different way.” Staff pick up the square and place it on the square spot. They repeat this action several times so that the student can see what they are doing. They hand the square back to the student, who then places it on the square. The student and staff member celebrate this together. Later, the student has trouble with matching the triangle and needs to twist it. After showing, the student is still not able to do so. The staff person asks the student: “Can we do this together?” and holds out her hand. The student puts their hand on the adult’s, and together they twist the triangle to put it in. They do this together for three triangles. The student takes the fourth triangle and puts it in independently and grins. Staff give the student a big high five!

Student C. Student C is listening to a “Baby Shark” book when we approach to show them their schedule. Baby Shark is their all time favorite. We remind them, “Yes, you can bring Baby Shark, but it’s work time” and hand the work time picture to them. They begin walking to the right area, but then walk to the side and hang the picture in a different place. Staff grabs the picture and says, “Work time is this way. Let me show you where I hang this.” Staff get low next to student and point to the work time area, showing the picture again. Staff offer the picture to the student, but the student does not take it. Staff carries it to the work time area and calls the student. The student walks towards the staff and approaches the table. The student places their “Baby shark” book next to their work time area. They look at their work time schedule, pulling the “triangle” off and matching it to triangle on the shelf. They take the “triangle” bin to the table and complete the puzzle inside. They put the bin in finished. They look at their schedule and see “square”. The student does not take the square picture, but turns to the shelf of work time activities. They pull off the circle bin and bring it to the table. Staff say, “Yes, you love the counting cows! Let’s count!” and joins them in counting the cows and putting them in a line. After several minutes of playing with the counting cows, staff point to the student’s schedule and show the square again. The student puts the counting cows in the finished bin, takes the square and matches it. The student then completes their second work activity. 

Student D. One staff approaches Student D with the art time picture. SD takes the art time picture to art and hangs it. They look at the art project for today, which is creating a tractor from construction paper cut-outs, and then run away. Staff wait for one minute for the student to re-regulate and then approach again with the art picture. The student says, “No no no no no” and then hides their face. Staff say, “We will try again in a few minutes.” After several minutes have passed, staff re-approach student for art project. The student continues to refuse. Staff go to the art center, collect the student materials and bring it to the student on the tray, moving to where the student is. Instead of forcing the student to participate through physical prompting, staff opens the glue and begins to put the glue on the tractor piece. After glue is on the piece, staff offer it to the student, “Where should this go?” The student turns their head. Staff place the tractor piece on the construction paper. Staff put glue on the wheel and then offer it to the student. The student turns towards staff this time, and watches as staff puts it on the tractor. The student maintains gaze on the art project, so staff offer the glue stick. SD takes the glue and puts a speck of glue on another wheel. Staff exclaim, “I love it when we work together!” and finish putting the glue. They hand the wheel to the student and they place it on the paper. Staff and student continue to work together, taking turns and doing different pieces of the art project until it is complete.

Student E. Student E uses a first/then visualization to help them throughout the day. This student also uses iPad activities for learning. We do schedule the harder, more hands-on activities prior to the iPad sometimes. Hard work is hard. Many of us need time to self-regulate after completing something challenging, and this student self-regulates though iPad play. The sounds, the visuals, the structure all seem to help them stay feeling good in their brain and body over the day. It has really helped this student to 1) know when iPad is on their schedule, 2) know what comes after hard work (it’s not always iPad), and 3) know exactly how much work they have to do. One way that we prevent this from becoming coercive is by having iPad scheduled multiple times through the day. We have times where all students get access to iPad, and that includes this student. We do not hold their work from 10am over them at 11:30am. At other times, the schedule might read “first circle time, then Starfall”, “first reading, then work time”, and “first lunch, then play centers”. I share this to emphasize that the first/then board is not a token economy, but is specifically about making the schedule and expectations visually clear. 

On Assessment

image of rainbow letters on the floor -- telepubies -- an attempt to spell Teletubbies.

Assessment is important. It’s kind of weird to hear me say that, right? I often write about how assessment underestimates our kids, feeding into harmful cultural norms around disability supports and education. All of that is still very true. 

Yet I use ongoing assessment to drive my instruction. I sit down every week to review our data before designing my instructional plans or activities. I use it to know if my teaching is working; I use it to adapt and course-correct when my teaching is ineffective.

How? How do I make assessment work for my students?

The answer lies in both how we assess and what we assess. It lies in what we “count” as learning, what we “count” as demonstrating knowledge. It also lies in how we use those assessment tools. 

What are we assessing?

What we choose to assess is as important as why and how. Too many times, my daughter’s assessments have basically been about assessing her competence. They are normative tools that showcase all the ways she is not reaching neurotypical milestones. We already know she’s neurodiverse. We already know that she has her own route and map to her best life.

There are better ways. We can assess what skills are emerging, and develop plans for strengthening them. We can assess a student’s environment to see what is or is not working for them. We can work with our students to determine what goals they want to achieve, and assess how we are doing to reach those goals. We can focus on grade-level curriculum and standards. There’s so much more to teaching and assessing than a list of neurotypical skills in development. 

Why are we assessing?

image of an alphabet puzzle on the floor, half completed
student uses their alphabet knowledge to put together a floor puzzle

Assessment, for me, is almost entirely about what I can do to better support my students. It’s not about demonstrating what my students cannotdo, which is often the purpose of testing in special education. It is certainly not about setting up a prerequisite where students cannot access XYZ pieces of education until they prove themselves. If I have not yet determined which letters a student knows or does not know, that doesn’t mean that we won’t talk about letter sounds, engage in writing, or enjoy books together. Think about general education students. They don’t always master all of the material in one unit, but they aren’t held to learning that same unit over and over again all year. If you get a C on a geography test, they don’t make you keep practicing the same map as your sole activity each day before you can study early indigenous cultures. Instead, we spiral back through the material throughout the year, scaffolding and supporting students as we go.

And that is what I use assessment for — what do I need to scaffold? Where might I need to more accommodations? Is there something that I should draw attention to more explicitly, even as we move forward with our curriculum? Did I create meaningful experiences that allowed students to make deeper connections? Were students engaged? Did students have the opportunity to show their knowledge through a wide variety of means? Where might we need to include more assistive technology? This reflective process — a process where I adapt to meet the need of my students better — is what makes me who I am as a teacher. 

How are we assessing it?

This is the entire crux of when assessment works, and when it doesn’t. Our students have a million barriers that make it difficult for them to show their knowledge, talents, and skills in a typical setting — anxiety, apraxia, communication difficulties, sensory processing needs, on and on. I am not giving tests. This doesn’t just mean pen and paper tests, but also “testing” of knowledge. I am not sitting at a table with an array of picture cards, asking students to touch or point to something. I am not withholding items or “sanitizing the environment” to force a specific type of communication. And this is true of everything I assess: literacy, math, conceptual knowledge… It’s not about showing something when I want how I want. I don’t think that helps anyone. 

And I know there are those out there who will say, “but you need to be able to show a skill on XYZ.” I was in a webinar this summer where they said “well, even if it’s not a knowledge problem, it’s a performance problem.” I don’t think it is. I think it’s a “our culture is super ableist and expects things to look a specific way” problem. The answer to that problem isn’t to force our students to show up more neurotypical, or to withhold education until they can show skills the way we want them to.

The answer is to be flexible. 

The answer is to observe.

The answer is to listen. 

Assessment is about “capturing a moment”. It’s noticing the things that our students do during the day, the subtle and the dramatic. We take observation notes, photographs, and videos to create student portfolios that stand out stronger than any of our numerical data or graphs. We add student work: their writing, their buildings, their collaborative group creations. It’s messy. It happens during meaningful experiences, sensory-rich and hands-on. It happens when they are exploring alphabet letters, reading books with an adult, or running around on the playground after peers. The thing is: when we want to see learning, when we want to see our students’ competence… it’s everywhere. 

chalk letters on blacktop with a student hand on the D, while they begin tracing with their other hand
student dictated letters & then traced them afterwards

It’s the student whose eyes track the words as you read the title, even when they cannot get their hands to touch the words along with you. It’s in the student who looks at your feet every time you sing “if you’re happy and you know it, stomp your feet.” It’s the student playing with alphabet magnets and periodically naming them to themselves. It’s the moment that you’re passing out Play-Doh tools, saying “take one”, and a student grabs just the red roller. It’s when a student chooses the snack bag that is more filled. Or a student who plays with blocks by separating out all the little ones so that they can keep the bigger Legos only. How much can you learn about a student when, on a Friday, you say, “Today is…” but their favorite activity happens on Tuesday, so they yell out, “It’s not Friday!” All of these are moments where we learned something about what our student knows. They would be ignored, unseen, or discredited by some. And our students would slowly start to shut down, stuck in a world where they have to constantly prove something. 

It’s also about listening and observing the environment to notice what “gets in the way”. For example, a student may be able to locate their shoes in their cubby when the environment is quiet, but not during the “goodbye” song. This doesn’t meant that they cannot follow one step directions, or that they don’t know what ‘shoes’ means. It means that we need to consider accommodations to support the student to be successful. It means not asking students to shift attention rapidly (or when a favorite song is on). It means giving transition time. It means noting that this student uses context clues and routines to increase their independence, which we can use to support them across other activities as well. That’s what I mean when I say that assessment is about capturing knowledge and changing my teaching. It’s not about proof.

Because that’s the thing — I don’t need proof. I know my students learn. I know my students are creative thinkers, problem solvers, competent and capable. I never presume anything less. 

(P.S. – I recommend sharing and celebrating all those moments that you capture with students and their families. They will spend most of their educational career being told what they cannot do, unfortunately. Be different. Show them there’s a different lens.)

We have AAC: now what?

image of an iPad screen with Speak for Yourself, and a list of animals in the message bar: banana, cookie, cat, dog...

Access to AAC is a fundamental human right, but it’s one that tends to be forgotten and overlooked in many spaces still today. October is AAC awareness month, which means lots of people are hearing about AAC or gaining access for the first time. The first few steps can feel overwhelming to families and professionals new to this journey. There is a fear about “doing it right” and “doing it enough”. I promise that you can do it. You can do it. You must do it. And it will be worth every step. 

Get excited. It can be really easy for AAC to be seen as a chore or “another thing to do”. It can seem like that to families, to professionals, and to AAC users themselves — especially when drilling methods are used to teach its use. It’s really important for all of us that we don’t associate AAC with “work”. We need to stop seeing on AAC as a way to drill our students on all the things they already have a way to say. We need to see AAC as a tool that allows our students to express all the other things they have to say. This isn’t to say that learning a new language isn’t hard (it is) or that magic moments happen every single day. Learning to read and to write and to speak a new language — all of these things can be challenging at times. But they are all things we see as worth it, because of the long-term benefits. We find the joy in all of the moments along the way. The first time our child spells a word by themselves, the first time they “read” their favorite memorized picture book, the first novel we pick out. AAC is like that. Sometimes easy, sometimes hard, and always worth it. 

Make sure the system is available. This is the first thing I always tell families or new teachers to do. Spend the first few weeks getting into the habit of always having the system. Problem-solve what you need to make it happen, whether it’s straps, a Post-it note on the door, a different case, etc. Assign staff members who get systems out of backpacks. Figure out a plan and space for charging if it’s high-tech. This shows your student that you truly value their AAC system, that you believe in its importance, and that you want to hear what they have to say. It’s also really hard to model on or use an AAC system if it’s not there. 

Assume intentionality. Please, please, please, please, whatever you do, please never say “I don’t think they meant it” in front of a student. I wish you wouldn’t even think it, but please don’t say it. Always respond as if your student meant it. There is no harm in this assumption, but there is so much harm in telling kids’ that you do not believe their words. If you don’t understand, be honest. Ask. “I don’t understand what you mean, can you try telling me another way?” or “Hmm, I have to think about that, can you tell me more?” These are not hard things to say. 

Encourage exploration. Treat a talker like a voice. Do not take it away. Do not remove it or block it. Do not put it on the teacher’s desk to be used later or when it’s appropriate. You cannot do this with speech, and so you cannot do this with a talker. Exploration is wonderful. Exploration is learning. Exploration is ownership. There’s a million reasons for children to babble and stim and enjoy their systems. They could be learning the locations of words — how else will they find them, especially if they are not yet reading and spelling. They could be playing with sound and exploring words and language, just as young ones do when first learning how their mouths can make different shapes and noises. They could be engaging in self-talk. They could just be having fun with sound, and that’s fine too. They have a right to autonomy with their AAC systems, the same autonomy that they would have with their speech, the same autonomy they should have with their bodies. 

Familiarize yourself with the language system. Adults often complain about not being able to find words or finding systems not intuitive. I’ve found the hands-down best solution is to explore the system. Find a picture book and comment on all of the pages — with the AAC system. Watch a favorite TV show or movie, one where you know all the best parts already, and do the same. Think about words you might want to use on a daily basis — search for them. It truly comes down to practice. There’s a reason so many adults tend to prefer the system they know the best… Once you’re familiar with it, it becomes easy. If you don’t have access to the system itself, see if you can get access to a low-tech version, watch videos of people using it online… Give yourself time and grace to learn something new, but keep learning it. 

Model, model, model. And then — start modeling. Modeling is a fancy word for saying “talk with the talker”. Don’t overthink it. When you talk, highlight one or two of the words you say on the talker. If you’re wondering what your child could be thinking, highlight one or two possibilities on the talker (“I wonder if you’re tired? Sad?”) Start with modeling just a couple words or modeling at meals or spending some 1:1 time with your student’s AAC system and their favorite toy. Yes, you can start that small. Yes, you can start by modeling 3-4 words as the opportunity arises during the day. Yes, you can start modeling by talking all about food and drink and favorite TV shows, or other likes or dislikes at the dinner table. Just don’t make it work for them or for you. Don’t make it “say this right now”. Think of your goal less about “doing it right” and more about “getting comfortable with AAC”. I’ve seen fear of being wrong all too often lead to no modeling. And I promise some modeling, modeling with mistakes, modeling slowly, all of it is better than no modeling. 

Yes, there can be more to AAC. Yes, there are other things to think about, amount of modeling and vocabulary and recasting and probably some other fancy terms. I’m not denying that. But it all starts here. Don’t overwhelm yourself with dozens of articles and stress about doing it right. This is the foundation. This is what everything else is built upon. Make this strong. Become so reliable about having the device that you feel naked the one time you forget it for 5 minutes. Get so comfortable with responding and modeling with AAC that your child or student never, never, not for one second, ever doubts how important you see their system and how valued you see their words. Everything else comes later. 

How We Do It: All Talkers, All the Time

tween girl in stroller with AAC device on lap as she talks to Donald Duck
tween talking to Donald Duck with AAC system in her lap

Whenever we start a student on an AAC system, I tell people that our first step is ensuring that the device is always available. I tell parents — spend the first 2-3 weeks just bringing the talker with you. Bring it to the bathroom. Bring it to the playground. The grocery store. The bus. Seriously: before modeling, before anything else… We have to develop routines to ensure the system is available.

The obvious reason: we cannot model if the device is not there. Our students cannot use their systems if they are not there.

But also: it shows our students that we think their systems are important. We think their voice is important. We are telling our students with our actions that we want to hear what they are saying. We want to hear it everywhere, all the time, always. This world so often silences our students. We are saying — no, not us, not now, not anymore. This is powerful.

Here are some tips & tricks that we’ve used to ensure devices are available.

Set the foundation. Know your “why” for using AAC. Know it deeply. Share it with your team. Look for the moments that reinforce that why. This commitment to voice comes first. Take every opportunity to model this commitment and be a leader in the classroom.

Students can carry their systems. This isn’t always appropriate due to age, strength, etc… Adults can certainly carry systems for children. But don’t be afraid to let children carry their system. Ask them if they want to carry their system. Of note: do not make students carry their systems. The last thing we ever want to do is turn their voices into “work” that we insist they do. Show them the power by respecting their voice and choices, even if the choice is to let someone else carry it.

Use visual supports. When we first had 8 talkers in one room, it was a challenge to get them all out on the playground. We had visual supports on the door to remind us: did we get ALL of the talkers? “See me, see my AAC”, a tagline created by Kate Ahern, has frequently been posted on our bulletin boards, data sheets, and around the classroom.

iPad in pink case next to stack of Legos

Assign responsibilities. We have one person who always checks bags in the morning to make sure all talkers are available. We have another person who always checks to make sure we have all the talkers before we go to the playground. If someone sees a talker without a child, they grab it and bring it or the student or team working. We support each other. These routines have helped embed the availability of talkers into our classroom culture.

Consider the whole system. First, make sure there is always a back-up. Technology fails. Even low-tech. There are many ways to have a back-up system, each with its own strengths. Have a second iPad, a printed version, a core word board on your keychain. Remember also that an AAC system is often multimodal, more than one specific device. My daughter uses modified signs, partner-assisted scanning, word approximations, and her iPad device. Different environments require different pieces of her system; we plan accordingly.

Straps, harnesses, and more. Every device in our classroom has an attached strap. The use of straps, carrying bags (Chat Bag), or harnesses (Jabber Jas, Safe N Sound) is an individual decision. It also can change over time. Those are the most common ways to carry systems but we’ve also used a classroom cart. Be creative! I find that having some sort of carrying mechanism makes it easier to transition a device — especially if there are multiple systems in a classroom.

young girl in a stroller holding her AAC system in her lap while she participates in miniature golf

Eliminate fear. Fear of breaking tends to be one of the reasons that systems get left at home or on tables. We match students carefully to the best case and carrying system for their needs. We’ve matched students to water-resistant cases when they liked to pour fluids. We’ve matched students to cases with attached oral-motor chews when the case was bite-tempting. We’ve doubled up screen protectors. We’ve placed systems inside Ziploc bags. We’ve printed on iGage or TerraSlate paper. We also always make sure to have a warranty or AppleCare Plus.

Have you tried any of these strategies? Are there other strategies that you would recommend?

How We Do It: Visual Schedules

yellow clipboard with velcro picture symbols showing a student's day (circle time, art, tech, eat)

I tend to write about the philosophy behind my teaching and the culture more than the practical. This is because nothing else matters until our classroom cultures shift. Visual schedules are a fantastic example of what I mean.

There are plenty of people who use visual schedules as a compliance system. This is on your schedule. You must do this. Or they use visual schedules because someone once said they should, but they sort of just sit around and have little meaning for the students using them. If that’s how they are being used, then it’s not a student accommodation. It’s a teacher tool.

We use visual schedules to increase predictability, visual supports for conversation about our day, and to assist students to know where they are going and when they are going there. They are a support system. I understand this deeply because I need a schedule.

How do we do this?

yellow folder on top of a yellow clipboard

We design the schedule to be easily accessed.

I often see schedules on walls. I’ve made this mistake in the past. But it’s not very useful on a wall if you’re in the cafeteria, on the playground, or even on the other side of the room. Asking a student to leave a preferred activity to go across the room to check their schedule to come back across the room seems like a lot of response effort for a time that may already be challenging. Transitioning, shifting attention, and now moving too? We keep our schedules on our clipboards. The front has a folder for data, notes, or individual student items. The back is the schedule. We also bring the schedule to our students. Older students could carry their schedules with them by placing them in their binders or backpacks.

We design the schedule for understanding.

We currently use primarily picture symbols, but not only picture symbols. We have used songs, objects, photographs, and written text, all dependent on the child’s needs. We’ve also mixed them all up — maybe a student uses a picture schedule for all of their work activities, but uses a spoon to transition to meal time. We currently don’t use times on our schedule as we are in preschool but I’ve used them with older students. It’s not about the tool. It’s about matching the tool to the student needs. Ask your students: will this lead to more or less understanding? More or less frustration? If they cannot tell you with speech, watch their nonverbal language. We always want to decrease frustration.

We use visual systems to support their use for transitions.

image of a filing cabinet with an "art" picture attached to the side, with 8 velcro dots below

One thing that has invariably helps my students when learning routines and schedules is to have a match in another location. They don’t just have a random picture of a table that means “work time”. There is a matching picture on the actual work time table as well. If we’re using a space that serves multiple purposes, that picture is attached by velcro. I don’t like spaces to have multiple visible pictures showing; it gets confusing. We know what the schedule says because we can read text. If our students are not yet able to read, how do we make sure they understand? This matching system helps so much.

We refer to the schedule throughout the day.

The schedule is not just a decoration or a transition cue. It’s something we talk about throughout the day. We talk about changes to the schedule in our morning meetings. When students go to their backpacks during the day, we show them their schedule to help them know when we go home. If a student asks for a snack or iPad or some other item that we cannot access right now, we use the schedule to tell them when they can have it.

We don’t care about compliance.

Repeat after me: the schedule is not about compliance. It is about understanding. Not compliance. Not compliance. It has to be said so many times. One of our assistants is brilliant at being about cooperation instead of compliance, especially with schedules. When a student puts a picture schedule piece in the wrong place or on the floor, she says, “That’s one place you could try. But let me show you where I would put it.” If a student just won’t take their picture symbol to transition, then we say, “Oh I’d love to help you. Let me show you where we are going.” If a student needs to finish their current activity, because they’re mid-alphabet, we let them finish their current activity. If a student runs across the room to the next activity, ignoring their schedule, that’s fine. If they are already sitting and waiting at the table, that’s fine too. Because it’s not about “checking the schedule”. It’s about feeling safe, knowing what’s happening in your day, and having a way to help you get from place to place. That’s why we use them. That’s why we adapt them. That’s why they work.

Our students need MORE, not less.

Students who receive special education services need more supports. The type of support they need varies — maybe they need instructional support, maybe lots of accommodations, maybe assistive technology… But, generally, an IEP is a layering on of the structures and supports that a student will need in order to access their education and make progress on their goals.

However, the reality sometimes is that our students end up with less, not more. It often doesn’t happen intentionally. It happens because we worry for our students. It happens because of outside pressure by organizations that promote discrete trial teaching. It happens for the same reasons that general education teachers “teach to the test” — because we want the best for our students.

Still, sometimes we aren’t providing the best. Sometimes we are unintentionally causing our students to fall further and further behind. It can be hard to hear that. It was for me. It still is. But, because we love our students, we have to hear it. And then we can be better, do better. Because we want to. For those students.

One of the mistakes that we make is that we remove the content — the math facts, the letter sounds, the historical timeline — from the context. We drill those addition facts every day, but we forget to spend the time we need just manipulating objects, exploring sets, and making sense of numbers. We practice sight words, but we don’t read chapter books aloud every day to our students. I know these things happen. My own children have experienced them. I’ve totally made the mistake of working on receptive language through pictures at a table, disconnected from what we are doing in blocks or pretend play.

But our students have the same right to a rich, meaningful curriculum. They deserve to learn the meaning of “wet” through puddle-splashing, sink or float experiments, and reading books about the weather — not just through a picture in an array of eight. They need to learn more than just facts about the Civil War. They need to read the newspapers, debate the pro’s and con’s to various Reconstruction policies, and see the way those choices still impact our country to this day. Does this mean that we leave our own students to flounder in a too big, too much classroom or curriculum? No. We still accommodate, we modify, we do what we need to do. We just always keep the context in mind. We keep the why of learning. We keep the love of learning. This is how our students build mental maps, expand their schema. This is how they learn to research, to think critically, to solve problems, and communicate their knowledge. Those things are important for all of our students, whether they use single words on a communication device or write beautiful essays by hand.

Another common mistake that I see is less time on instruction, less time engaged. Even the research comparing general education to special education finds that students are less engaged in special education classrooms. This remains true even when students are matched in their skill and need from one environment to the other. We need to ask ourselves: Are we providing access to all five components of literacy instruction? Are we teaching more than just math facts? What are our general education peers doing during their days? And how can we bring that same level of engagement?

Exhibit A: “Fun Friday”, anyone? Does this mean all Fun Friday activities are inherently wrong? Nope! I’ve seen some amazing Fun Friday activities, with rich instruction in literacy and mathematics, with dozens of opportunities for collaboration and communication. One teacher at my school has these amazingly planned cooking lessons that everyone in the school wishes they could do. But I’ve also seen students get coloring sheets in 5th grade, watch movies, and generally be involved in less education. If it doesn’t happen on Fun Friday, it might happen after lunch or after morning work time. I get that students need breaks. I get that students need time to move their bodies. But I also get that our students are struggling — and providing 20% less instructional time is not going to help them gain the skills they need.

There are other ways to meet those movement or social skill needs. We can read books and re-tell the story through acting, singing, and dancing. We can do more hands-on, moving around activities throughout the day. We can look for games, apps, and projects that build number sense, spatial relationships, and turn-taking between peers. I know we can because I see it happen. I’ve seen brilliant activities that connect math to real life in both general and special education. My son’s general education fifth grade class just hosted a market where everyone learned about economics through designing and selling products. There’s so much room for individualization in projects like these, so many ways to target IEP skills, provide a richness of context, and still have those super fun Fridays.

I’ve failed at this before. I know I will fail again. But failure here isn’t about shame or blame… It’s about thinking what we can do better. It’s looking at my schedule, realizing that I want my students to have more time in stories. I see what I can do. I change what I can. Because there’s always room for growth in this journey. Always. And I want to provide more, not less.

Language mapping with AAC

image of a preschooler holding a Thomas train and touching "up" on their iPad with Speak for Yourself, AAC app
all the words, all the time

A common question comes up when people ask about AAC and children with autism: “But what if they don’t have communicative intent?”

First and foremost, yes, if a child truly does not yet have communicative intent, you can still introduce AAC. You can do all the things we’re talking about in this series, wherever a child is in their communication. But I also feel like we need to break down this concept a little bit, because it can be confusing. Communicative intent is when we convey a message through the use of expressions, noises, sounds, gestures — all of the ways that we communicate. Notice that it’s not limited to words, it’s not limited to speech sounds, it’s not limited to pointing. It’s not even limited to intentional messages; non-intentional messages count. Non-intentional messages are where we all began. 

A baby is hungry. The baby cries. 

An adult says, “It’s time to leave the playground.” The toddler screams and pushes an adult away.

A girl’s sister takes her train. She bites her sister.

The teenager pulls her mom to the kitchen.

A preschooler stacks blocks in a tower and watches them fall. He flaps and jumps with excitement. 

All of these are messages. Some may be intentional. Some may be non-intentional. Some may be directed to others. Some may not yet be. But all of these children are using their bodies to create messages about their inner experiences. 

My guess is that when most people say “he doesn’t have communicative intent”, they may mean one of any number of things. They could be missing the child’s messages. They could only be referring to “appropriate behavior” — but challenging behavior is still communicative. Or they mean getting up and approaching an adult to share a specific and deliberate message. Each of these are separate problems that we can work through while using AAC. We only need to be open to examining the ways our philosophies and practices may be influencing what we see and expect in our children. I’ll address getting up and approaching adults in a future blog, but today we’re focusing on seeing a child’s message and mapping language on to that message. And you need to have access to robust language to do so. 

Seeing Messages

Every student is conveying messages. They may use their bodies. They may use unsafe ways to share their messages. But they are sharing messages, dozens and dozens of them every day. All of these messages are important, even when they don’t conform to a neurotypical way of communicating our needs, likes, or dislikes. 

We must become careful observers of the people we serve, whether it’s our children, our students, or our very best friends. What happens when our students are hungry? What happens when they are tired? How do we know when they like something? Do they do it over and over? Does their facial expression change? Do they move their bodies? What about when they are angry, overwhelmed, or frustrated? For a while, my daughter’s biggest message cue was when she heard anyone in the room say a relevant word, her head would tilt slightly. It wasn’t 100%, but it was a start. A start is all you need. Watch across daily routines and activities for several days. Make notes if you need to. Ask their families, their classmates, or a favorite staff person. 

If your student has a complex body, this might be more difficult. They may not flap or wave, run away or run towards. Watch their eye gaze. Do they look towards one item longer than another item? Do they turn their head towards or away? Is there a pattern to their vocalizations, more, less, faster, slower? Watch for subtle signs — a head tilt, a lift of the chin, eye movements, small shifts in their body. I once taught a student who simply closed her eyes when she did not wish to talk to us or engage in the activity. Every time. Art? Closed eyes. If I cancelled art and said we were headed to the playground, BAM! Eyes wide open, one hand waving, let’s go go go. If you’re not sure what a movement means, make a note of the time, activity, or communication partner that is present each time it occurs. Can you detect a pattern? Can you create situations where this message is more likely to be conveyed?

(Note of caution: do not deliberately create frustrating, overwhelming, or angering situations in order to test your hypotheses. Use observation only for those emotions. I am specifically referring to pulling out favorite toys, people, songs, activities, and looking for signs of interest, excitement, happiness, engagement.)

Language Mapping

Better understanding our students’ messages means that we can be better communication partners. One of the most important jobs that we have is to provide aided language input — as much as possible through as many routines of the day as we can. Aided language input refers to communication partners’ (that’s you and me!) modeling use of an individual’s AAC system. 

With our very early communicators — the students who are mistakenly labeled as lacking “communicative intent” — this modeling often begins by mapping language from their AAC system onto their actions. We translate the messages that our students share with their bodies into language that can be said on their AAC system. This is why it’s important to spend some time as Sherlock Holmes. We have to know what these messages are! Let’s look at some examples of language mapping in action. 

Jane 

Jane is a three year old student who often plays by lining up her Thomas the Train toys. Her teacher has been watching her play for the past few days and thinks that Jane is really happy when she lines up her trains. After she places the last one, she may smile to herself. She sometimes wiggles her fingers back and forth or runs around the table in a circle. Jane can do this many times in a row. Sometimes other students want to play with the trains and may take Thomas or Percy. Jane may start crying, pulling on her hair, or even fall to the ground. Jane does not seek out an adult for help or try to get her Thomas back. 

Jane’s teacher introduces an iPad with a dynamic display app. Notice that the teacher continues to map language onto Jane’s actions even if Jane does not appear to be paying attention at the time. We don’t stop talking to toddlers because they have their own interests to pursue. We don’t stop talking to our students just because they may not be looking at us — especially if we may be using neurotypical standards to judge attention and learning. We model, model, model, model. All day every day. Uppercase words are words that she models on the talker while speaking out loud. 

  • Jane lines up trains 
  • Teacher: “I think you LIKE this.” 
  • T: “That’s THOMAS! You LIKE Thomas!”
  • Jane takes them apart. She starts again.
  • T: “AGAIN! I wonder if you are HAPPY! You are doing it AGAIN.”
  • T: “LOOK! THOMAS is at the front.”
  • Jane’s peer picks up Percy, who was laying on the side.
  • Jane starts to whine.
  • T: “I think you WANT Percy. Maybe you are saying MINE MINE MINE.”
  • Before the teacher can help Jane get Percy back, Jane falls to the ground and kicks.
  • T: “You seem MAD! IT’S NOT FAIR! Sharing can be so FRUSTRATING.”
  • T: “I would love to HELP you get PERCY.”
  • Jane turns to teacher and looks at her for the first time.
  • T: “Let’s DO it. Let’s go ask Johnny for PERCY. You were PLAYing with PERCY.”

Robust AAC Matters

You can start to see why it’s much easier to model when we have access to a robust language system. A robust language system is one that has a lot of different words. It has nouns, verbs, actions, pronouns, adjectives, and all the little words that those who speak take for granted. Maybe you don’t have all the words open right away, but the options are there. They can be added at any time. 

Imagine Jane if her teams had been focused solely on functional communication training that was limited to requesting? How would we have to teach? Would we have to simply block Thomas and have Jane request Thomas over and over? What social interactions would we have missed? What language learning opportunities? What social-emotional regulation skills could we have taught? 

It starts to become obvious why — even with our earliest communicators — we need to be able to access all the words. When we limit our students to fringe/nouns or 10-15 words, it becomes difficult to say frustrated, angry, mad, this is too easy, happy, excited, don’t like, don’t want to, or give me more sprinkles on my cupcake! And all of those words are important. Especially about cupcakes.

Do you want more examples? Do you have a situation where you’re struggling to find the message? Or the right words to map? Leave your questions & feedback in the comments.

Last week: all means all, all the words, all the time, for all the people.

Next week: teaching communication as interaction — without limiting our student’s communication access, part 1.