Including Students Who Use AAC in the Regular Education Classroom: Where Do We Start?
Back to school means a class of new students. Whether you're a veteran teacher or new to the field, having a student in your class who uses augmentative communication can raise a lot of questions...How does he communicate? How does she interact with her peers? How can I make him a part of my class? Many talented, experienced teachers have simply not had the experience of working with students with complex communication needs. Whether you're a veteran teacher or new in the field, hopefully considering these points will help get your class off to a great start this school year.
One goal of including students with significant challenges is helping that student become a valuable member of the classroom community. Peer interactions and relationships are the foundation for social acceptance; and are also excellent opportunities to build communication skills. While most people share this fundamental belief, the logistics of making it happen in a busy classroom full of students who all have their own learning needs, can be a daunting task. Modeling acceptance is an excellent first step toward reaching this goal.
If the teacher and all of the other adults in the classroom are accepting and inclusive, the students follow suit. Children often have a lot of questions about how a student might communicate or behave. Many successful inclusive classrooms have a discussion early in the year about a student with significant challenges. Sometimes a discussion is not necessary, particularly when a student has been with the same district for many years, and peers have grown up with that individual. In this case, they are already accepted and included as a part of the classroom. Many classrooms, families, and educational teams approach classroom discussions about augmentative communication differently. Some teachers, or SLP’s lead a class a discussion with all the students about AAC, explaining that not everyone communicates using speech. Children easily relate to using sign language, gestures, writing, or body language to tell others information. In some instances, the student who uses AAC participates or even leads the discussion, while other students are more comfortable having the discussion at a time when they are not in the room. Discussions might include the student, SLP, or classroom teacher showing the device to the class, so that all the kids can see what it looks like and how it works. Open discussions pave the way for understanding the differences amongst us. Once the whole classroom understands the communication strategies that a student uses, peers are able to interact independently, and can provide models for communication strategies. Peer interactions are usually far more motivating than communicating with adults!
Another major difference between speaking and using augmentative communication is the time that it takes. Why does it take so long to use augmentative communication? Most verbal speakers talk at a rate of 180-200 words per minute, whereas most proficient augmentative communication users speak at a rate of 40-50 words per minute. Notice how that says proficient. Many students, especially in the younger grades, are just learning to use their communication devices, and are not that fast. Students who use AAC might also have receptive language processing delays, slowing their communication rate down even further. In our busy world, we are used to communication happening immediately. In order to keep up with this pace, well-meaning people prompt before the student has had time to process the information and find their response, others say a quick “Hi, how are you?” as they’re walking down the hall, and keep on walking before that child can answer. Over time, what lessons does the child learn about communicating? Now think about those same interactions, slowed down with everyone consistently expecting a response. How does that change what the child learns about using their communication device?
I remember visiting one classroom, where a second-grade girl using AAC was fully included. She had a lot of movement and challenging behavior, often touching her peers and their belongings. At snack, there was a birthday celebration, and all the students were having freeze pops. She quickly grabbed a boy’s freeze pop and just as quickly, dropped it back down on his lunch tray. I was expecting the boy to tell on her, get mad at her, or for her to be moved away by her paraprofessional. Instead, the boy looked at her and said, “Thanks! You pushed up my freeze pop for me, that was awesome!” Thinking about that interaction still makes me smile. It occurred to me that the peers and adults were getting just as much or more out of the student being included as the student herself. Hopefully, you will walk away from your class with the same feeling.
By Heather Gray, M.S., CCC-SLP, ATP