How to use AAC in the Classroom to integrate non-verbal students in to daily classroom routines
by Melanie Broxterman
One of the things that I tell the parents of my students early on is “expect communication”. Expect me to write a note home, possible asking some questions or wanting feedback. Expect a phone call home for positive things. Expect IEP information to be presented in a timely manner so that if parents have questions, I can do my best to answer them. But most of all, I let the parents know to expect communication from their child. All children communicate, it is our job, as teachers, to figure out what they are saying and teach them ways to communicate more effectively. For this reason, I feel that exploring and utilizing various AAC options within the classroom is vital to the communication development of the students. (Before I continue, I must give my disclaimer. While it is OK to explore a variety of AAC devices, please be sure to complete a formal AAC evaluation before settling on a single device for a student.)
As mentioned before, communication, especially the exploration and use of AAC, within my classroom is a high priority. Once you know your students and how they communicate, you can begin to help them develop ways to express themselves. During a recent cooking lesson, done in conjunction with the speech therapist, the students were exposed to a variety of AAC options in order to allow ALL students the opportunity to be active participants. Below you will find a brief description of the levels of AAC as well as examples of the AAC options utilized during a recent recipe lesson for “blender applesauce”.
Integrating a variety of AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) within the classroom can be done in a variety of ways. As my students are younger and still learning language, we often use low tech options for AAC. Some “low tech” options are simple line drawings that represent items, actual photographs of objects, single message voice output devices (ex, Big Mack switch), a simple choice board, or an eye gaze board. “Low tech” options are great to use in a structured situation. Line drawings or photos of snack items are often good place to start. Giving the students just one picture to point to can begin to build the concept of communicative intent which is so important to develop. I like to use the single or multi-message voice output switches during stories with repetitive text. I have my verbal students say the text while the other students can use the switch to participate. This year, my students enjoy recording their own voice on the device. The non-verbal students also enjoy hearing a peer’s voice more than the adult voices. I have found that choice boards and eye gaze boards are great to use for students to make preferred choices, like what center to play in or who gets to go next.
Sometimes, “mid tech” options are appropriate to use. An example of “mid tech” AAC is a device that offers prerecorded voice output that have changeable displays or overlays (ex, 7 Level Communication Builder, Tech Talk). This option offers a static display often requiring an adult to assist with changing of the overlays to match the activity. I utilize the class device when we have a project that requires more choices than what a voice output switch might offer, but I want to limit the word choices to be specific to the activity. I find devices that offer changeable overlays are often very versatile devices. I have successfully used a 7 Level Communicator over the years as a way for students to participate in routine answers throughout the day, such as calendar or morning message activities. I also think this type of AAC devices work well when students need to report something in a sequence (like give a report). Another great way to use devices like this is to program the device and making overlays to tell “ALL ABOUT ME” so a student can tell about herself to her peers.
The third option for AAC would be “high tech”. An example of a “high tech” device is one that offers an extensive build in vocabulary with the ability to change between screens. This option often has a dynamic display. The “high tech” option usually also function like a computer or offers environmental controls. Some examples of “high tech” devices are the Dynavox Maestro, the Vantage Lite by PRC, use of an iPad with a voice output app (such as SonoFlex). “High tech” AAC devices are often personal devices to an individual student. It is imperative that as educators, we work with the student’s private therapy team to create the most successful environment. I utilize “high tech” AAC devices much the same as the “mid tech” devices. The devices are set up and used as a part of the school day as much as possible.
Over the years I have discovered that students are more willing to engage and use AAC when it is something that is FUN and the focus is on commenting. This took me a while to understand, but I get it now. How bored would you be if all you said each day was, “cereal”, “I am a girl.” and “no”. We must find the opportunities to engage the students in the fun stuff, like “CRASH!” (when blocks are knocked over), “Mix it up!” (during a recipe), or “Boo!” (during a Halloween story). After seeing some success and engagement, then work on the nitty gritty. One activity I like to do that utilizes the “academic” and “fun” is having the student that uses the AAC device be the BINGO “caller”. Allowing the students to be the one in charge has helped them be more willing to use the device.
I challenge you to find those highly motivating, communicative moments and build on them! Start small, maybe choosing one 5 minute session a day. Allow for peer models as well as model the use of the AAC yourself. If you and your school team are not familiar with AAC or other AT (assistive technologies), I encourage you to check around for local resources. In Ohio, we have a great system of SST’s, or State Support Teams, which can help with training and assessment. Local children’s hospitals and therapy clinics are also places that could offer support.
The SMART Board used as a communication options. The students walked up to board to tell class if the applesauce was yummy or yucky.
Short Bio: Melanie Broxterman is an intervention specialist in southwest Ohio who has been working with students with mild, moderate, and intensive needs for the past 13 years. Melanie maintains two teaching licensures (General Education Grades 1-8 and Special Education Grades K-12). Melanie has taken numerous classes in Assistive Technology through Bowling Green State University and just recently began her Master’s degree in Education Technology through Michigan State University. Melanie is an active part of her school’s technology team as well as a local resource for SMART Board and iPad use focusing on students with special needs. Melanie also maintains a classroom and technology at http://broxtermansblog.blogspot.com/. You can also find her twitter @teachwtechbrox.
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