In-classroom Learning with AAC Students: One Step at a Time

I recently observed a three-year-old girl who was going to start in-classroom learning after an extended time at home during COVID. She and her father were visiting her grandparents for the first time after an 18-month gap due to COVID. Even though they frequently interacted online via Zoom or FaceTime, the excitement and anticipation in seeing each other was significant. However, the little girl, on only a few occasions during the two-day visit, wanted to leave the loving embrace of her father. She was able to name all the letters and colors and sat down to do focused desk work for a surprising amount of time. She seemed happy to withdraw into her own world and engage in learning material; however, she was reluctant to interact with her grandparents.

This observation made me think of a book I have been reading by Krista Tippett, entitled, Becoming Wise. In the book, she interviews Ann Hamilton, an artist who makes the statement that we really must practice listening because our everyday spaces are not set up for listening. She expanded on this idea by pointing out that it is not only that we don’t have time and space to really listen, but that when we do listen, we tend to want to do so by using earphones to improve our own ability to focus on specific information. We don’t really listen or we are “plugged in”; and she explained that “It is very hard for me to wear headphones at all or sunglasses because then I feel like I’m not where I am, wherever that is” (Tippett, p. 88).

I couldn’t help thinking of how the use of earphones on my iPad has helped me to isolate myself from the environment in recent months. It was almost as if I needed the earphones to protect me from the outside world. Although it did help me to focus my attention on what I was working on, it clearly also functioned as a buffer against what was going on around me. It dawned on me that I too have become skilled in using this buffer to isolate me from outside world during COVID.

Young Children Getting Back to Face-to-face Classroom Learning

Child with headphones
Child with headphones

A buffer refers to any action aimed at lessening the impact of external noise or interference. This notion made me think of the difficulties children can experience making the transition from being buffered or “plugged in” at home and integrating back into classroom interactions. While some students might find the transition quite easy, others will find it emotionally distressing. How then do we as therapists and teachers deal with diverse groups of students as we make the transition from home-based to classroom teaching?

The obvious answer is for staff to be aware of the challenges this transition can cause for students to enable us to act with flexibility and adaptability to ensure that we accommodate all student needs. These actions require small steps to help us move through the process. Focusing on one step at a time helps us to feel less overwhelmed as well as support us to make adjustments without having to change the purpose of what we want to do. This change or growth mindset provides us with the freedom to adjust without having to feel guilty or evaluated.

One Step at a time: What does the strategy mean for children who use AAC?

A “one-step-at-a-time” strategy draws attention to the importance of slow-moving attention to detail. There are three main pointers to this type of strategy: Firstly, we need to take time to think about what the process of stepping back into the classroom will mean for our students. We need to understand their anxieties about making this change. Secondly, we need to identify some small incremental steps to guide our interaction with the students. And thirdly, we need to remain open to accommodate and adjust to allow for a diversity of responses from students. A more detailed view of these steps would look something like this:

Step 1
Be with students: Take time to be with your student, that is, allow time to open yourself to resonate emotionally with the student. We need to realize that it is not just about cognitively understanding our students, but also emotionally being with them. We need to allow time for us to be with our students without being anxious about the need to document every step. Documenting what happened after the fact provides us with the opportunity for quality reflection on what happened.

Step 2
Identify small activities or procedures to enhance engagement. We want the student to become engaged in small, yet meaningful interactions with us to develop a basis for further learning opportunities. Small, non-directive, play-like interactions can provide us with a rich context for planning further learning activities.

Step 3
Modify our own observations to enhance student engagement. We need to remind ourselves that this process is about the young child, not our agenda for the child. This mindset will allow us to be open to respond to our students’ reactions and behaviors with interest rather than judgment because they didn’t comply with our expectations. Our ability to make changes to the process we outlined is a requisite for designing meaningful steps to bring students back to classroom learning in an engaged way.

The aim here is not to develop another step-by-step visual display, but rather to enter the process by creating a safe and secure environment for the student without having set ideas of what this environment could look like.

How Could This Work in Practice?

The major benefit of a “one-step-at-a-time” approach to classroom implementation is that it focuses attention on specific steps, which allows us to execute and change direction more easily. For example, Henry enters the room, the teacher approaches him (step 1: greeting); he ignores her (step 2: the teacher observes this); and Henry walks to another child, who is bouncing a ball at the other end of the classroom. The teacher changes direction, as she did not expect Henry to not respond (step 3) and goes to stand with the two boys while they play with the ball. What this teacher did here was important in determining the meaningfulness of this interaction:

  1. Being with:
    In the first instant, the teacher approached the student as she planned to; but when he wasn’t interested, she immediately redirected. She observed his behavior and realized that he is not interested in interacting at that time. Instead of persuading Henry to greet her at this time, she followed his lead to where he was standing with the other boy.
  2. Identification of short activity:
    After a short period of being with the two boys and the ball, she quietly encouraged Henry to kick, give, roll the ball to Peter (step 1) to increase Henry’s involvement in the activity. She observed that Henry enjoyed kicking the ball (step 2) and tried to expand the direction in which he can do so (step 3), e.g., Can you kick to me? Kick to Peter.  After a short while, a little girl approached the small group, at which point Henry lost interest and wandered off.
  3. Modification of strategy:
    I observed the teacher moving to her table to note down the core words she would like to focus on during early morning time the next day with Henry. These included: come, like, kick, ball, high, low, gone, directionality (e.g., here, there).

One might well ask: But how do you scale up this type of intervention to be applicable to more children? Well, one can never scale up from a small experiment (or interaction) to the entire world (or classroom). However, as you accumulate information and gain insight into the overall nature of the problem, you might see what can be replicated and what cannot.

Final Comment:

I really like the subtitle of the article by Carol Dweck about teachers’ mindsets: “‘Every Student has Something to Teach Me’: Feeling overwhelmed? Where did your natural teaching talent go? Try pairing a growth mindset with reasonable goals, patience, and reflection instead. It’s time to get gritty and be a better teacher.” Perhaps we can embark on in-classroom transitional processes by heeding Dweck’s call to rely on our natural teaching and therapeutic talent to guide the process.

Any comments or thoughts? Please feel free to share.

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