Joint Attention and Mutual Awareness: “Why” Not “What”

Teacher and student

Over the years I have come to realize that we often ask the wrong question. The real issue is not “What should we do” or “What type of activity will s/he be interested in?” but rather “Why is the student acting this way? Why does s/he not show interest?” Answering the “Why” question is, however, trickier when a student is an AAC user who has difficulty expressing him/herself. So, it seems easier to focus on activity outcomes rather than to spend time understanding why the student is not paying attention.

Students who do not behave in a way that we expect can be challenging to teach. This is particularly difficult, as we want to demonstrate the gains that students make. If they do not find activities interesting, we change our instructional approaches and strategies (e.g., reinforcement) to ensure the student complies. Changing teaching activities or reward strategies, however, does not guarantee that what we change to will be more effective.

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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.

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