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 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.
I recently followed an interaction between communication professionals on twitter in which they commented on the difference between compliance and engagement in interacting with young children. It made me acknowledge that Twitter can be used in really constructive ways: These short messages can make you think! Please see the postings as well as the comments on the postings below (Nov. 13 & 14, 2020).
Twitter Postings and Comments on Compliance and Engagement
(November 13 & 14, 2020)
Communication isn’t about pressing buttons to get things. Communication is about deepening connection, meaning-making and engagement. These things drive us to keep communicating (Alex de la Nuez).
Let’s not confuse compliance with engagement. Doing something I don’t necessarily want because someone tells me to do it is compliance. Doing something I want to do because you’ve inspired me to make my own choice is engagement. (Chris Bugaj).
• True, true, but we all have to do things that we don’t find engaging. (Cathryn Robbins)
• True. Compliance also isn’t always learning. Following directions doesn’t necessarily mean content is being learned. This can be especially true for students with language delays. (Mollie Kropp)
These postings and comments highlight some important concepts in thinking about the differentiation between compliance and engagement. I briefly summarize the primary points below.
It is not uncommon for parents to express uncertainty about how to go about playing with young children who are not able to express themselves. These children often have a limited repertoire of toys that they are interested in. All we need for play is to identify one toy (e.g. teddy), action (e.g. jumping), or object (e.g.. car) that the child is interested in and use it as a basis for play. We want to be aware of what the child is interested in and then for us to extend what s/he does with the toy/object to expand involvement with us and the toy/object or action.
My child is in school already, why should s/he still learn to play like this?
There is a direct link between children’s ability to play with themselves and others, and their ability to learn. This also applies for children of school -going age. Children learn primarily through play. They make up action stories (e.g. the doggie runs in the yard, he runs fast, he sees daddy coming in the car, what does the doggie do? He runs to the car to greet daddy). In playing out a simple story like this, they learn about sequential actions and logical outcomes. If we can get a young child to play like this, s/he is well on the way to learning.
What toys do I use?
We need to watch carefully what toys the child spontaneously engages with. We need to observe how s/he uses the toys to develop their play skills. Allow yourself to expand play around the object of your child’s interest by adding one or two ideas that you think the child might relate to. Parents can be most intuitive in knowing what a child might enjoy – and if it doesn’t work, then you can try with another object/action/toy later on. It is not how many times we have to try that is important, but where we are heading for!
Gaining a young child’s attention is often difficult and expanding that interest to include a slightly longer engagement with the toy can be quite difficult at first. Remember this is an activity that you and your child should enjoy together. Don’t allow a play session to change into a “teaching session”. The idea is to have fun together. Play, communication and learning can only happen when a child is interested and enjoy what they are doing with you.
We recently lost one of the big research giants in the field of augmentative and alternative communication: Lyle L. Lloyd. He died at the age of 86 and was a professor in Special Education and Speech and Language Pathology at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, for 34 years.
I recently read the article “After years with no way to communicate, Newburgh teen finds her voice.” Like so many other similar stories, this heartwarming narrative gives an account of how a young women is using supported typing to “communicate.” The mother describes how this strategy has helped her teenage daughter to communicate and find her “voice.” Her daughter points to letters on a letter board while another person (the facilitator) supports the daughter’s wrist during the process of typing.
Although it is good to read positive stories like this, it is important that we alert parents and professionals to the pitfalls involved in describing “supported or assisted typing” as a communication strategy.