Repeat Questions from Students with Special Needs in the Classroom:
What to Do?

Children raising hands in classroom

A teacher recently shared that she has a student in her class who keeps repeating the same question even after she has responded to it. The student will ask the teacher, “When will we get our tests back?” To which the teacher will reply, “I will give them back tomorrow, as I have not finished making all the corrections yet.” However, 10 minutes later, the student will proceed to ask the same question.

This reminded me of a similar scenario with a student I know of who used an AAC device. This student also repeated the same question, even though the teacher had responded to the question. The student would activate his device to ask, “When do we go to the library?” To which the teacher would respond by saying, “We will go to the library after break.” However, within 10 minutes of the first question, the student proceeded to repeat the same question.

On the surface, these two situations are quite different. However, they have some commonality, as both scenarios can only be resolved if the teacher understands the basic motivation for the repeat questions.

Paying attention to repeat questions is important to avoid the establishment of a persistent interaction pattern. Repetitive behaviors are not only cumbersome to the teacher, but can also evoke challenging comments and responses from peers. It is thus worthwhile to invest time in understanding why the student uses repeat questions. What are possible reasons for this type of communication behavior?

Reasons for Repeat Questions

"Thinking" emoji with question marksTeachers often describe these behaviors as attention-seeking. The assumption is that the students want attention, but have no new information to share. However, at least in my experience, this is seldom what is at stake here. These behaviors are often active attempts to communicate a nagging dissatisfaction or discomfort experienced by the students.

Although these behaviors can be momentarily suppressed by a distraction or token, they are bound to resurface. The specific reason for the behavior could include:

  • short-term memory problems (not remembering that the question was asked until it is pointed out);
  • a need to interact or make a contribution (but with little skill to know what is appropriate);
  • anxiety about the outcome of the test results (anxiety about grades); and in the more extreme cases,
  • an attempt to escape or avoid the task at hand.

One good strategy that I have seen in classrooms is the use of a question board. Teachers would write the question asked, with responses, on the board. This written format acts as a reminder of which questions were already responded to. The challenge is one of reinforcing the behavior that students first need to look at the board before asking another question.

Another strategy is to approach the student (who seems to be in need to interact with the teacher) by ensuring him/her that you will be available to talk at break (or another suitable time). This could be challenging at first; but as the student realizes that there will be an assigned time to talk to the teacher, this need might decrease over time. Writing the question and response on the white board is helpful in reminding the student that they will interact later. An opportunity to interact is particularly important with students who experience significant anxiety about his/her performance or grades in the classroom.

Setting up an opportunity to interact with a student is a positive step forward. The art of it is to approach the interaction with the student with an openness that can encourage the student to talk without feeling pressured. Starting off by simply interacting (with no specific agenda) can prove more productive than trying to “solve a problem” in interacting with a student.

Application to Students Who Use AAC

Behavior difficulties with students can often be alleviated by affirming a teacher’s interest in and willingness to be with the student. In the case of students who use AAC, this interaction can be even more important. We are often so focused on “how to use the AAC device” that we forget that merely interacting and being with the student is fundamental to learning. Truth be told, making time to allow ourselves to be with our students can be some of the most productive learning opportunities for both teacher and student.

Please feel free to comment; and of course forward this message to others who you think might find it useful.

Riding the Whirlwind: Human Interactions and Emotional Resonance


On a recent visit to South Africa, I realized again the importance of traveling to bring fresh perspectives as well as new insights into human interactions.

Moral Compass: Political cartoon of Nelson Mandela by Zapiro
Truth be told, this is a difficult time politically in South Africa; and dealing with political views while visiting family can be interesting albeit quite disturbing at times. A political cartoon by Zapiro (Daily Maverick) stayed with me, as it connected to a dilemma that I encountered while visiting an elderly friend who lives on her own in Johannesburg. The cartoon depicts Nelson Mandela showing the way to go, while the current President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, is caught up in a moral whirlwind (windvane) without an escape route. The depiction of “being caught up in a whirlwind” struck me as I reflected on the situation that my 91-year-old friend finds herself in. Continue reading “Riding the Whirlwind: Human Interactions and Emotional Resonance”

Listening, Communication Intent, and Rabbits

Rabbit in a field of grass

What Can We Learn from Our Leporine Neighbors?

I have been watching the rabbits in our garden in the early morning hours as they nibble at the grass and momentarily stop to listen, before continuing with their nibbling. This process of nibbling, abrupt stopping and listening, nibbling and stopping and listening fascinates me. It is almost as if the rabbits realize that while they are busy nibbling grass, they can’t listen (or become aware of potential threats), hence they have to stop, albeit momentarily, to listen.

While the idea of stopping in the midst of daily activity is not new, it made me think about our communication intervention practices. I have been trained (and have also trained others for a long time) to understand that communication is an intentional, goal-oriented process of exchanging messages to achieve specific outcomes. The closer the outcomes resemble the initial intent, the more successful we deem the communication to be. But is communication with others really purposeful in that way? Is the process of developing meaning with others really that predictable? Continue reading “Listening, Communication Intent, and Rabbits”

iPads, Electronic Media Use, and AAC Users

Child using an iPad tablet

Should students who use iPads for communication purposes be allowed to use the iPad in the classroom for academic purposes? This question was raised recently by Maria Landon in the ASHA Leader (June 2018 issue):

Then the classroom teacher starts talking about a great new current-events application she just heard about. The occupational therapist wants to install a handwriting app. The student’s one-on-one aide thinks a visual timer would be very helpful during transitional times. So, now what?

Continue reading “iPads, Electronic Media Use, and AAC Users”

The Young, Not the Elderly, Are Loneliest

Lonely teenager

This is the heading of an article in USA Today (May 1, 2018) in which the writers describe outcomes of a study in which the national loneliness score was 44 on a 20–80 scale of loneliness. Social isolation of those aged 18–22 raised even more concern. According to this study, the score for loneliness for these young people was 48 in comparison with 39—the score for elderly people older than 72. In short, counter-intuitively, it is the youth among us in the United States, not old people, who are the loneliest.

In the article, the link between loneliness and physical and mental illness is also explained. Continue reading “The Young, Not the Elderly, Are Loneliest”

R.I.P.—Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking being presented by his daughter Lucy Hawking at the lecture he gave for NASA's 50th anniversary

I just read that Stephen Hawking passed away last night—a great man who did a lot to promote the use of AAC worldwide.

From Daily Skimm:


RIP Stephen Hawking. The world-famous physicist and bestselling author died early this morning in England. He was known for going deep on how the universe works, especially black holes. And came up with the idea that they aren’t entirely black after all, but instead radiate particles. Hawking’s theory was a major breakthrough in trying to combine quantum mechanics—which studies the (really) small things in life—with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity—which handles the big picture. He’s the subject of The Theory of Everything, which Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for. And happens to have done a lot of his groundbreaking research and writing while suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, aka ALS. Which severely limited his physical movements. When he died, his family shared something Hawking once said: “It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.” RIP.

About the Florida Shooting, Empathy, and Not Being Able to Speak

Empathy: Grieving teen with paper lamp

I was reflecting on the 2/14/2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the massive impact this event has had, once again, on all of our communities: not just in collective grief, but in the outpouring of empathy for the victims.

A young man shooting people randomly at a school seems incomprehensible. Yet, how do we go about helping students and families to make sense of such traumatic events? The easiest solution is not to do anything; but is this an ethically tenable position to take? Continue reading “About the Florida Shooting, Empathy, and Not Being Able to Speak”