Do you ever walk into a classroom to find your student’s augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device sitting quietly on a shelf? Does everyone on the school team think of it as a voice?
After experiencing AAC access challenges with many well-meaning educators on a number of occasions, I probed deeper. I soon discovered other school-based speech-language pathologists encountered similar challenges. When I asked them for theories as to why this was happening, several themes emerged.
Research shows that children with communication challenges do best when introduced to AAC as early as 12 months.
Typical reasons why AAC wasn’t being used include that school staff:
- Viewed AAC more as a tool than as a voice.
- Lacked education and training with AAC.
- Felt overwhelmed with the prospect of learning about new technology alongside other responsibilities.
- Abandoned AAC when students displayed challenging behaviors, such as pressing off-topic buttons.
I hope these five strategies can help SLPs improve AAC access challenges.
Consistently refer to AAC as the child’s voice.
I encourage SLPs to consistently refer to the device as the student’s voice. For example, “I’m going to grab Johnny’s voice to program some new words onto it.”
As my understanding of this challenge began to crystallize, I wrote a poem entitled Please Don’t Leave My Voice on the Shelf in an effort to advocate for my students. Later on, I received a powerful video from an SLP at New Hope School in Pretoria, South Africa, featuring her nonverbal students reading the poem with their AAC devices.
Request time to educate.
Inform your administrator of the critical need to allocate time for meeting with the child’s team—every staff member who works with the child. This is your chance to provide both general education about AAC and key information about the specific communication aid to set the student up for success. Cite specific examples of how AAC can be used in a variety of ways throughout the day. Invite families to this meeting if possible, so everyone has the same goals in mind.
Set realistic expectations.
Once the AAC device arrives, it sometimes feels as though the team reached the finish line when, in reality, everyone is at the starting line. Be upfront about the process of programming the device, the ongoing need to teach and model AAC use for the student, and possible challenges the team might encounter along the way.
Offer behavior-management strategies.
It’s not uncommon for students to use AAC incorrectly for a variety of behavioral reasons, particularly if the device is not dedicated exclusively to communication. Teach the team how to use tools such as “guided access” on non-dedicated devices such as the iPad. Engage the team in a discussion about the function of various behaviors. Behavior is, in fact, a form of communication. Encourage everyone to use standard behavioral interventions, such as positive reinforcement and rewards, rather than device removal.
Model, model, model!
Speak to the child’s classroom teacher ahead of time about when you can model AAC use and facilitate communication in the classroom. Choose a core word of the week and provide examples of how teachers and other team members can use it in multiple ways. Ask teachers to provide you with some classroom vocabulary you can program. Finally, discuss and model ways to use the device socially—greetings, comments—to help the student become an active member of the classroom community.
Our role as SLPs in effectively implementing AAC for our students throughout the school day can be challenging. However, as we thoughtfully program vocabulary into our students’ devices and educate their communication partners about how to facilitate communication, we engage in the rewarding process of making sure no voice ever gets left on the shelf.
Claudia Doan, MS, CCC-SLP is a pediatric speech-language pathologist with experience in school and clinic settings. She created and blogs at Creative Speech Lab, which provides resources that incorporate experiential learning into speech-language treatment. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Bloglovin’. email@example.com