Every year we spend lots of time setting up our classrooms. We make sure everything looks good and is organized for our students. We have bins for school supplies, books, and academic tasks; we have visuals on the wall; and we have lesson plans made but what about those AAC devices? As you are getting everything organized it is important not to forget about those AAC systems/devices our students use. These AAC systems are critical for many of our students to be able to communicate and demonstrate what they know. AAC should not be an after-thought because then we tend not to use it. What if on the first day of school someone told you that you would not have a voice that day or that you would only be able to communicate one day a week? That’s how our students feel when they come in and have no means to communicate or only every once in a while we pull out that communication device. We need to think about our students’ communication needs now as we set up our classrooms.
As you look through your students’ IEPs determine what your students’ means of communication is. Do they use a PECS book, core board, or do they have a specific AAC device assigned to them? The students’ means and levels may vary significantly for all your students. Take a look at what type of communication systems your students have and what their skill level is for that system. If you have students high-tech or dynamic AAC systems you need to think through where you are going to charge and store the systems, as well as, where the systems are going to be in the classroom for easy access. The student should be able to access their device throughout the day. The AAC system is the student’s means of communication and should not be put in a drawer or closet. We aren’t expected to remove our voices for part of the day so neither should our students. When a person takes away a student’s communication system you taking away their voice and ability to communicate with others. Make sure the device is charged and ready to go at the beginning of each school day.
For students with mid-tech AAC systems such as a Tech/Speak or Go Talk we need to make sure the devices have overlays to use which fit the device and are on the student’s level. Check to make sure the device is recorded correctly. When you have the overlay in the device and push a button the device should say what is on that button/picture. With these static devices you can often have more than one overlay and can program multiple pages on the device. I often like to mark the back of the overlay with the number corresponding to the setting on the device. So when you have overlay #1 in the device then you change the device setting to number 1. You might have different overlays to pair with different subjects or activities. Check what type of batteries those static devices use and make sure you have extra in your classroom.
Other students may use no tech/low tech systems such as a PECS book or core boards and we need to determine where to place them so the student can also easily access them in the classroom. It is also important to make sure the pictures in the student’s communication book are functional and appropriate for the student. I often suggest talking a picture of your students PECS book after you get it set up so you can refer back to it if the book gets all disorganized. You can also have one of your paraprofessionals be in charge or making sure the PECS books are organized at the end of each week.
I know it can be hard to remember to get those AAC systems out every day so here are a few tips I share with teachers to help with that. I often suggest working with your students to be independent with their AAC devices so they can be in charge of them but how can we do this? If you have your student check a schedule every morning that can be one of the first things on their daily schedule. Hang up backpack and get out “talker” or whatever you choice to call their device. Another option is if your student has an assigned desk tape a picture of their AAC device on their desk to remind both of you every day to get it out. Hang a picture of your students AAC devices anywhere in the room that will help you remember them. Maybe post a picture of their AAC device where your student hangs up his/her backpack so as they unpack they can get out their device. If you do a morning calendar time hang a picture of that device by the calendar so it helps you and your student remember to get out the device to use during calendar time. The more your students use their AAC devices the easier it will be to remember and your student will be able to demonstrate what they know throughout the day!
There are also different ways to utilize no tech communication systems within your classroom to help facilitate communication with your students. In one of my preschool classrooms, the students are just beginning to work on using a picture exchange communication system so these students don’t have a PECS book assigned only to them. In this classroom, the teacher and I focus on establishing communication intent and purpose for these students. These students are working on the foundational skills of communication. In this room I created a communication book with just food and pictures related to eating (i.e. plate, spoon) and another communication book with crafts and basic concepts (colors, shapes, etc). I have these books on the shelf were the students receive small group instruction so it’s easy for the teacher to use the book while working in small groups with the students. The food book is also easily accessible so during snack time or lunch the teacher or I can grab the book to use with the students. This is a great time to work on requesting!
Core boards can be hung in the room and used during circle time, centers, or anytime. One of my teachers hung a large core board where she does circle time so she can use it during this time. I also suggest putting core words with the pictures/symbols up around the room instead of just nouns. For example, on the door put the words “open” and “close” along with the symbols of those actions instead of just the word “door”. When we go to the door we don’t typically just say “door” but instead say “open” or “close”. If those words and symbols are on the door you can touch the symbol or word and model the action. For example, as the students line up at the door touch the symbol or word “open” and model the word as you pair it with the action of opening the door.
If you have some set systems in place for where to store and charge AAC devices, how to remember to get out those AAC devices out and make sure they are easily accessible, and how to incorporate no tech systems within the classroom it will help the transition into the new school year. I know I would be frustrated and act out if I did not have a means to express my wants and needs which is why it is so critical to think about ways to reduce this frustration with our students. Communication happens all day everyday so think about how this is going to be possible for your students with limited or no verbal communication skills.