Making AAC Users Feel Listened-to: Slow Is Better

While teachers and therapists might feel the pressure to get students to settle down and get work done in the classroom, allowing time for young AAC users to feel listened-to is an important first step towards engaging them in learning. Even if we feel pressured to get on with reaching set objectives, we need to remember that making students feel listened-to is a first step towards engagement in learning. Slow is better.

AAC Questions We Need to Ask Ourselves

  • Can we allow ourselves the time to listen to the AAC students in our class? Or are we going to succumb to our default tendencies of using behavioral strategies to get students to comply?
  • Is compliance what we want? Or are we really interested in getting the student to engage in learning?

What can seem daunting at first glance, however, can be quite straightforward. A child that feels listened-to is generally a happy child. Rather than focusing on getting the child to settle down, we also need to develop an understanding of how the child is experiencing the transition. If we can be with the student, then ways to facilitate the child’s transition to the classroom may come without much intervention effort. Dealing with change is difficult for all, hence, we need to move slowly to allow our students to feel that we are interested in what they have to offer. We can only respond meaningfully if we have some idea of what it feels like to be in the child’s shoes. Engaging our students in what we do is a first step towards communication and learning.

Self-expression of AAC Users

Over the past few years, much attention has been directed towards social-emotional learning in schools. The truth is that socio-emotional learning starts with the ability and opportunity to express oneself. However, an interest in communicating ideas with someone only becomes relevant when one feels listened-to.

Even though many of our AAC students might not be literate, the idea of eliciting narratives (albeit short ones) from students is a powerful strategy to give them a voice and encourage self-expression and engagement.

How Do I Get to Know My Students If They Are Not Able to Talk or Express Themselves?

Step 1: A good place to start is with the explicit goal of getting to know and be with the student.

Slow is better. Allow yourself to become emotionally resonant with the student. This requires that you step back, carefully observe, and notice how the student experiences the context. We can learn more from our students if we allow ourselves the time to be with them. Even if our interactions with a child might differ from day to day or morning to afternoon, patterns will emerge. Making a video recording of these spontaneous interactions could be very helpful. Being with the student is the first step towards engagement.

Step 2: Help the student to identify activities to provide opportunities for self-expression.

Providing a student with two or three pre-determined choices often does not motivate them. Observing students’ gazes to indicate what they might be interested in often provides a better way of engaging them. Slow is better.Taking a bit more time to identify what a student enjoys is important in promoting the development of self-awareness in a young child.

Developing a short narrative (2–3 concepts or sentences) to document an experience can also provide a good starting point for self-expression. For example:

Candon likes the Buffy book, Candon likes to put the book on his head! (big smile). Expansion: What happens when you put the book on your head? It falls down!

A follow-up discussion might expand on the concepts by including a variety of core words, e.g., book on (head), falls down, What else can we do with a book?, What does P (another student) do with his book? We need to ask him! Do you want to ask him?

Step 3: Weave the goal of promoting friendships between students into your daily routine.

Self–Other awareness

Becoming included in a  classroom requires that students are able to develop self–other awareness. We therefore need to find ways to promote our students’ interests to assist them to become socially closer to others. Providing opportunities for students to share their short narratives within a group setting can be a great way to start developing self–other awareness among the students. For example:

Candon: shares his story (with assistance).

Teacher to the rest of the class:
Do you like the Buffy book? Do you like to put it on your head or do you like to read it?  Shelly likes reading. She wants to tell us about the Buffy book.

Sharing these short stories and using them as a basis for further discussion (albeit limited in nature) can be most useful in developing self–other awareness. However, we can only facilitate the development of self–other awareness when we allow our students to interact within small group settings. When students spend most of the day in one-on-one instruction, they can hardly be blamed for not showing an interest in others or developing friendships.

Student Preferences in Whom They Want to Be With

Promoting friendships between students starts by observing whom they like to be with. We can only become aware of these preferences if we allow students some freedom of choice. Assigning students to assigned seating arrangements for long periods of the day does not allow them to develop these affinities.

The next couple of blogs will further expand on these ideas. Let me know if you have specific questions that you want me to address. Enjoy the beginning of this new academic year and remember: slow is better!

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