Today, I share a presentation I made for AAC Awareness Month at the Centre for AAC in South Africa. I discuss ways in which we can deepen our understanding of different types of friendships. As a result, we can promote friendships in AAC intervention as an integrated part of daily activities.
A Challenge in AAC intervention
One of the biggest challenges that AAC interventionists face today relates to the sustainability of our efforts. We work to teach children to recognize and use symbols on communication boards or high-tech devices. However, we often must acknowledge that these interactions remain superficial. Consequently, interactions become routinized and stilted as students practice what they have learned. Because these messages do not really reflect how students feel, these interactions can become stumbling blocks in AAC users’ attempts to make friends.
Helping students to develop social closeness with others is less about who does it, but more an approach to teaching and intervention. An approach sensitive to encourage closer relationships between students should center on facilitating the development of self–other awareness. Self-awareness is the ability to be aware of one’s inner life, which includes one’s emotions, thoughts, behaviors, values, preferences, goals, strengths, challenges, and attitudes—and how these factors impact one’s choices. One becomes aware of oneself as one’s awareness of others become more distinct
Promoting self-awareness is, therefore, a process that allows students the freedom to choose who they want to sit with, who they want to work with, and who they want to play with. For example, instead of always having assigned seating in the classroom, students need opportunities to choose who they want to sit with. And though this could be difficult for some students to do initially, being exposed to these opportunities provides the impetus for self-growth.
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.
I am often amazed at how the pressure of “getting things done” can prevent one from meaning-making with others. The inability to take time to be with another can have significant impact on our well-being as parents and teachers.
A colleague and I were driving to do some training at a school. It was early morning, and we had had a late start. Getting back into the car with two cups of coffee for my friend and me, I felt quite relieved, as I had difficulty understanding the coffee attendant, who was speaking with a heavy southern accent.
About Personal Narratives: For Teachers, Therapists, and Parents
Various authors have emphasized the power of personal narratives in encouraging interaction between children of all abilities. Personal narratives provide us with oppotunities to share how we experience events in our lives. It is a powerful tool for enhancing self–other understanding and encourages sharing with others. There is no right or wrong personal narrative—it only describes our own experience. In doing so, it provides a strong incentive for others to respond and share their own experiences and perceptions.
This blog explores the concept of sending a parcel to someone as well as our emotional responses and reactions to the process. As before, I would encourge professionals and parents to use this short story as a means to encourage the exploration of ideas and emotions with their own students and children.
I include different questions at the end of the narrative. Some of these questions might seem too difficult. However, I would like to encourage you to expose your child to all the questions: Try and simplify the question, rather than merely omitting it. The aim is to understand the personal narrative from the author’s perspective, but then also to share one’s own exepriences on the current or related topic. Meaning-making between people develops as we are able to share and understand different ways in which individuals can experience similar events.
Much of life can pass us by when we are too hurried to pay attention to it. This is not only true for us, but also for the children we work with. Realizing that small moments of interactions can add to our toolkit to enhance meaning-making and social closeness between children can be a major game-changer!
A document (Promoting Positive Social Interactions in an Inclusion Setting for Students with Learning Disabilities) by the National Association of Special Education Teachers focuses on the importance of promoting positive peer interactions: ”None of these (referring to positive and challenging experiences) will be more rewarding than helping children with special needs developing positive interaction with their peers.” Even though the same sentiment is frequently repeated in schools, I am often surprised at the gap that exists between intervention practices with students with severe communication difficulties and the idea that we need to promote interactions and friendships between peers. This gap is particularly evident in self-contained classrooms where students tend to have assigned seats and are engaged in one-on-one instruction for up to 95% of the school day.
When we address promoting peer interactions, the focus often lies on the type of behaviors (e.g., getting a friend’s attention, sharing objects, saying something nice to a friend ) that can promote peer interactions. Although these behaviors are important, it is equally important for us to be able to assist two children who show some affinity for each other to become friends. Teaching and promoting positive behaviors can facilitate the development of a culture of acceptance and tolerance in school; however, they do not necessarily promote the development of friendships between children. Becoming friends requires sustained interest between peers and the openness to become socially close to another. Hence, the development of friendships requires targeted observation and ideas that can be infused to enhance meaning-making between two children.
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.
Recently, I was asked to provide information on the background to and motivation for my book on meaning-making in AAC intervention. Why did I write this book and what do I regard as the main contribution of the book?
This narrative is aimed at increasing children’s understanding of daily concepts by enhancing curiosity and engagement in everyday life events. It promotes close observation and inquiry based on what we see. Like before, I set the stage for the narrative by going through the concepts to ensure that children have some understanding of the main concepts in the narrative. The URLs are included to provide you with easy access to pictures and ideas to expand on your discussion with the children.
Preparation: Enhancing Conceptual Understanding
Here are some of the most important concepts highlighted in this short narrative. Although some of the concepts may be too difficult for some children, it is important to expose all children to all the concepts. Children learn by being exposed to new information and contexts even though each child will derive different meaning from the interaction. How children are able to participate in this activity is not as important as the experience they share with others in finding answers to the questions. The engagement in and enjoyment of the interaction is of primary importance.
Weather: For this blog I start off by setting the context in terms of the weather. I do this by contrasting different weather patterns: Indiana is cold, icy, wet, and snowy. South Africa is hot and dry, with little rain. Lack of rain often means that there is a water shortage.
Spider: Spiders have a body and legs and live on land, mostly in dry places. Pay particular attention to the physical resemblance, i.e., shape of a spider and its color to contrast with the spider in the pond.
Cracked ice: Looks like/not the same as/different from a real spider. Did the crack stay the same/change over time?
Feelings and experiences: Excited, curious. In addition to this narrative, the first story in the series also deals with playing a trick on someone.
As this is my first blog of the New Year, I want to wish you all a wonderful 2021. May we all soon see the end of covid! We will start off the year by talking about the use of core words in the classroom.
Teachers and therapist often ask me how much time they should spend on teaching a particular core word (or words) to their class before moving on to the next core word. Truth be told, this is a very difficult question to answer, as there are so many different factors impacting how long students take to learn a specific core word.
Traditionally we formulated our vocabulary goals by specifying that the child is able to use one language function at a time, e.g., requesting. We would use the words “I want” and encourage the student to indicate whatever s/he would like to choose. The focus is therefore on choice-making. The following video is a typical example of this kind of approach, where the focus is on getting the student to request specific objects to express needs and wants.