How Do We Promote Engagement in Interactions with Students Who Use AAC?

I have often been surprised to discover how therapists and teachers (myself included!) become so wrapped up in daily toil and activities that we are exhausted by 10:00 in the morning. Although we often admit this is not a state of mind we necessarily are content with, changing how we do things can be really difficult. Being busy makes us feel like we are productive and engaged professionals—but are we really? How is this “being busy” really benefiting our interaction with our students? This question is even more relevant when it comes to how we support students who use AAC to become engaged with others in interaction.

Granddad with Grandkids
Engagement in Interaction

I recently had the opportunity to observe more carefully how grandparents interact with their young grandchildren who are not yet speaking. I found it delightful to see not only how keen these young kids are to interact and enjoy being with their grandparents, but also how engaged they are with each other.

Grandparents, being by nature doting and interested, pay close attention to what their grandchildren are trying to convey. There is no other agenda here other than to listen, observe, and enjoy being together. These interactions are often characterized by several back-and-forth questions and clarifications to reach common understanding. Most importantly, this is not a process characterized by frustration because adults can’t understand the children, but rather a process of exploration and discovery between them. The effort that goes into the process of negotiating meaning is one of openness to the other, joy, and affirmation.

Quality of Attention

It is the quality of the attention, the interest in the other and the time invested that form the basis of the engagement between them. Even though there is a difference in roles between teachers, SLPs, and grandparents, there are some important pointers here for us to delve into:

  • What is the quality of attention that we pay to students who have limited speech and/or who use AAC in the classroom?
  • Students with autism are often exposed to highly structured individual educational programs; but how do we ensure that those working with them have the time and interest in the child to engage in interaction with them?

What is Engagement?

In my book, AAC Intervention: Engagement and Participation, I define engagement as the ability to a) be attentive to self and other; and b) interpret verbal and nonverbal symbols within context. The concept, engagement, therefore revolves around the ability to be with the other. This includes not only a cognitive understanding of what the other is communicating, but also resonating with another on an affective level.

Messages and symbols can mean different things in different contexts. Our ability to be with another, to be in affective resonance with the other, comprises a significant part of the context for interpretation and meaning-making. The process of communication with another involves more than just exchanging routine messages with each other. It also means that we open ourselves to each other to develop joint meaning to enjoy each others’ company. Only by allowing our students to experience the gains of being with another in the process of developing joint meaning can we expect them to invest in the process.

The Scale for Rating Engagement in Interaction

Scale of Engagement in Interaction
Scale of Engagement in Interaction

This Scale of Engagement in Interaction is a tool that we developed based on the theoretical framework developed in my book. The purpose of the scale is to encourage parents, therapists, and teachers to become more aware of the underlying skills that a child needs to engage in communication with another.

Feel free to download and use this tool; but please provide us with feedback on how we can improve it.

Guidelines for Enhancing Engagement in Interactions

The promotion of engagement in interaction requires an accepting and open frame of mind to explore and be with another. Here are four pointers important in this process:

  • Quality attention: Pay relaxed attention to the person and what s/he is communicating.
  • Interest in the other: Show a genuine curiosity in the other and in what they can contribute.
  • Openness to the process: Accept multiple ways of expression as a means to develop meaning. Interact with another to explore ways of expression and deepening joint understanding by being together.
  • Awareness of self and other: Be acutely aware of how one’s own behavior and preoccupations (and stresses) can impact this process.

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