Saturday, July 21, 2018

Defining Inclusion

"We cannot become what we cannot see."


I've been blogging and talking and doing work about "inclusion" for many years now. The concept seems sometimes to incredibly complex and, at other times, so very simple. This is mostly a reflection of the difference between "theory" and "practice". For me personally it is important from time to time to step back and reconnect to the "theory" in order to ensure that the actions one is taking are leading in the right direction. And so, I pulled a few of the visuals about inclusion that are "out there" to anchor myself.

In the journey toward inclusive education, it is always important from time to time to step back and ensure that what one is aiming for is actually inclusive education.  I think the most powerful statement in this graphic is "intergration does not automatically guarentee the transition from segregation to inclusion." If "content, teaching methodes, approaches, structures and strategies" are not evolving we are not moving toward inclusive education. 


The above images have been shared many times on social media. Shelley Moore has taken the images one step further and added "teaching to diversity". This presents the idea that all students are unique and we need approaches that are responsive to all rather than just to those who "are integrated". On a continuum this really links in to the definition of "inclusion" above as it gets to the level of systemic change. 



Sunday, June 17, 2018

To create a life that is both satisfying and successful... (Part 1)

“Inclusion is not a place; instead it is a lifestyle in which a person is an active participant in his or her life, rather than a passive observer and recipient of decisions someone else has made. To this end, inclusion promotes quality of life by (a) empowering individuals to have control over their own lives, (b) providing individuals with the opportunity to select the lives of their choosing, and (c)  conferring individuals with the sociopolitical power to defend their choices. Thus, in sum, the conceptual basis of inclusion is to create a life that is both satisfying and successful for a person with a disability.”




It seems like yesterday that my "baby" was sitting through his kindergarten graduation ceremony. At that point it had already become apparent to me that figuring out how to make school work for him was not going to be an easy task; That in the intersection between who he is and what school is his "disability" would be compounded and that through the years I would have to work hard to ensure that he was defined by more than what existed in that intersection.  

I began his education with a a dream of an inclusive and meaningful life with little awareness of how often that dream would be challenged. I knew it was about more than education and ensured that he was involved in gymnastics, soccer, music classes, scouting...etc. In the middle of all these activities we worked hard to find the balance that Mikey required between social interactions and time alone to explore and recharge.  






Through his elementary years it took planning and coordination to ensure he had normative social opportunities including birthday parties and attending his grade 6 camping trip (without his mother tagging along and getting in the way). Clearly, there were girls to be flirted with and squirrels to be chased and nobody needs their mom in the way for that. 










Junior high brought with it a whole new set of challenges and opportunities. Challenges in that there were many who believed the "gap was too big" for him to get anything out of being in a general education classrooms. Being in the general education classroom though is what created both social and academic opportunities - be it exploring the arts, hanging out with friends, contributing to group projects, or becoming completely fascinated with the concept of density. He was also finally able to get a communication devise in his Junior High years which opened new doors both socially and academically. 















High school, like every other part of his education has had it's ups and downs. He has discovered cooking and photography and continues to expand his circle of people. People who would joke with him, shoot baskets with him, and even comfort him when he was upset. These past three years seem to have passed in the blink of an eye. A few weeks back he participated in the school's grad ceremonies and on Wednesday of this upcoming week he will go the school for the last time as a student. It seems a bit surreal at this point that this part of the journey is all but over. 







I have written this post as a "Part 1" to give some context to my next post (which may take a bit of time to put into words). My son's story is not an inclusion story where the student becomes a super star as a result of inclusion. In fact, to those who believe in segregated education his story would be seen as one where others do not believe he came to his full potential through school. It's a debate that matters little to me. It's been hard at times. He has been lonely at times. But there are also so many experiences and learnings that connect into the goal of "creating a life that is both satisfying and successful". Although it is not going to be easy moving forward, we will be able to draw from those experiences to work with him in creating an normative adult life that is driven by him (although, like his education, it might take a lot of much worth-it time and effort and problem solving).  

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I dig a bit deeper into inclusive education, inclusive lives and dreams for adulthood through mommy eyes. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Looking Back to Look Forward

I have spent some time these last few days looking back through the 13+ years of my writings on both this blog and my personal blog before this (Red Lights). I started blogging about a month after my son started kindergarten. We are now just over two weeks away from him starting his last year in school. It seems to have gone by in the blink of an eye. Yet when I look back through the years of writing about first his life experiences and later how those experiences shaped my beliefs and career, the early days of his kindergarten year seem a long time ago. A lot has happened. There have been a lot of celebrations and a lot of frustrations. I could write a book about the things that I wish I could go back and "do over" but also recognize that we would not be in this moment in time without all those things... and that it matters that we are in this moment in time. It is where we are supposed to be right now.

In the past couple of years I have come often to the page on my blog where one starts a new post and I have begun to write only to hit a block and then eventually just go on to do something else. Yet it keeps pulling me back. I wonder what to blog about.

As I looked back through my posts, it is clear to me that much has changed. There is a part of me that wants to take down posts that outline excited plans about teaching life skills in a segregated classroom as it doesn't connect to what I believe in. It seems important though to keep them up there; To recognize and remember the journey. To remember that sometimes we pull into things that we believe will create safety but then come to see it does the opposite. When I look at it though it seems a bit odd that my writing became blocked at the point of finally clarifying my beliefs and truly working toward connecting them to my actions.

I question why. Did I get too busy? Did I not feel the need to write to clarify anymore because there was less turmoil? Did I find other ways to share rather than writing? Did I realize my audience and become afraid? Was there a piece of wanting to protect it all from the scrutiny of people who have a different perspective of what success is? Did I come to recognize that my son's story needs to his to share rather than mine? Perhaps it was little pieces of all those reasons and a whole array of others.

These past couple of years have brought about more changes for me and I'm not seeing an end to that for a while yet as life will become different again when my son graduates in the spring.

Even though my job had transitioned from self-contained classroom teacher in a single school to support teacher in multiple schools, we had maintained the room that I had been in as a support space that all students had access to through to the end of this past year. It has now transitioned to a classroom in the school. For me it is a concrete sign of not going back; Of continuing to find a path forward. I have been spending time this summer going through everything that was in the room, purging some it and a categorizing the rest to use as supports for the inclusive education of the population of students we used to segregate in the classroom I taught in.  In these next couple of weeks before school starts I will finish that job and set up my office and then begin another year.

Each year things change - with my son, in my life, in my job - but the changes are often so incremental that they are hard to see until you get to a moment where you stop and look back. I seem to come back to what my goal was with blogging when Mikey was only five years old often now. Is it possible to somehow capture not just the moments but the thoughts of the moments in writing?

The blogs I've written through the years have taken many different focuses and it feels like it is time again for another twist in the road in the hopes of bringing the pieces together. As I began writing a blog about work-related topics, I stopped writing a blog about parenting my son. In my work for a long time I tried to separate parenting a child with a disability from the work I was doing around the education of students with disabilities. Then I came to a point where I recognized that bringing the two together mattered; That inclusive education could never be about just education; That it needed to be about life.

As a new school year is about to begin it feels like the right time to commit to blogging again. I feel like there are so many things to write about: my involvement with Inclusion Alberta (a parent advocacy organization) in the past few years, learning more deeply about Shanker Self-Reg and how it feels to be one of those things you search for all your life, my hopes and dreams for my son as we move through this upcoming transition year and beyond...etc. I need to connect with what I would do in the past and just sit down and write and see what came out.

And so it begins again...

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Inclusive Education: From Political Correctness Towards Social Justice

A great video that explores the benefits and common questions about inclusive education.


"Children with disabilities are among the most marginalized and excluded groups of children; routinely, they are denied their right to quality education (WHO and World Bank, 2011). Policies vary considerably worldwide, with some countries prioritizing education for these children in different settings: special schools and centres; special classes in integrated schools; or inclusive schools which work to identify and remove barriers, and to enable every learner to participate and achieve in mainstream settings. Establishing inclusive schools is widely regarded as desirable for equality and human rights, and it has educational, social and economic benefits (UNESCO, 2001)."

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Great Quote - Erna Alant

I have just started reading the book Augmentative and Alternative Communication: Engagement and Participation by Erna Alant. The book looks at supporting both AAC users and communication partners in developing both engagement and participation in dialogue. Participation refers to the frequency and nature of participation and includes many of the things that we commonly target when planning AAC interventions. Engagement is about the level of enjoyment experienced in interactions, the types of topics discussed, and the level of emotional resonance between the partners. Interventions using this framework include enhancing awareness and understanding in the AAC user of his own/her own interests, actions and feelings as well as enhancing the user's understanding of an interest in his/her communication partners. I'm looking forward to digging further in to this book!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

One Word 2017 - Self-Reg

It's that time of year again when we shift toward thinking about the concept of 'new beginnings' that seem to come with the changing of calendars. For the last couple of years rather than thinking resolutions, I have looked at "one word" that would set a focus for the year. The word that I have picked these last couple of years are actually words that found me through the course of the previous year. This year is no different as the word that I've chosen is one that has been a part of my life for several years but has become more a part of my life through 2016. The word that I'm choosing this year is Self-Reg.


This past year has brought with it many opportunities to dig deeper in to Self-Reg. I have come to more deeply understand the science of energy, tension and stress and, in that process, the word "Self-Reg" has become meaningful to me both personally and professionally. I'm excited to see what continued learning and application of Self-Reg will bring in 2017. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

CCN Alphabet: Language of Control

To get this series going again, I have decided to jump around the alphabet instead of follow alphabetical order. I wanted to share that in case anyone is wondering what happened to the letters F through K. They will come. As I am completing posts, I am linking them in the original post in the series which can be found by clicking here.

The idea for this topic comes from the book Enhancing Communication for Individuals with Autism: A Guide to the Visual Immersion System by Howard C. Shane, Emily Laubscher, Raif W. Schlosser, Holly L. Fadie, James F. Sorce, Jennifer S. Abramson, Suzanne Flynn, and Kara Corley. The information on the Language of Control and the language functions that reflect the Language of Control comes from this book and the thoughts and ideas are a combination of some of the thoughts and ideas from this book as well as ideas from other sources and my experience. I also wanted to think through how to use core boards or the individual's core based language system with some of these ideas.

Often we tend toward using visual supports from a "behaviour management" perspective. It's important to not get too caught up in this as it can serve to inhibit spontaneous communication. Rather, but we should reframe this and look at visuals and language supports from a self-advocacy and opportunity for expressive and receptive language growth lens.

As outlined in the book mentioned above, the Language of Control is related to "control functions" that allow the individual to influence his or her surroundings by inspiring others to act. These functions are (1) protesting and refusal, (2) organization and transitions, (3) requesting, and (4) directives. These functions are controlled based rather than conversational in nature because their goal is to influence the behaviour of another rather than to initiate a conversation exchange.

Protesting and Refusal: According to this book, protest is a "behaviour that expresses objection or disapproval of an activity, event or person", while refusal is a "behaviour that expresses rejection of an object, activity, or event suggested or initiated by another person." Most children have a non-symbolic way of communicating protesting and refusal so the idea is to work toward a more symbolic (and often adaptive) way of protesting or refusing.

The language of protest and refusal is rooted in core words. The core words that are associated with protesting and refusal include "all done" or "finished", "stop", "no", "more", "help". "Take a break" is an important phrase that should be taught as well.

When working with students around the language of protesting and refusal we should (1) explicitly teach the words, (2) model the use of the words. and (3) ensure that the words are always easily available to the individual.

When we teach core vocabulary we need to do it "during meaningful interactions throughout the school day" (Project Core Website). At 12:15 of this Dynamic Learning Maps PD video there is a great demonstration around directly teaching core words to a group of students. I will be posting a separate post soon with some ideas around strategies for teaching the words included in the language of control. Modeling the use of the words is related to reading the individual's cues and modeling the language around it. Example: Modeling the capitalized words without expectation that the student will say them: "It looks like you DON'T LIKE that and that you are ALL DONE." Ensuring the words are easily available to the students means having their system there but it might also mean having these specific visuals available in different ways (i.e. having them tapped down to a work space or included right on a visual schedule).

Although protesting and refusal are primarily about expressive language, it is also important to be aware of the times when one cannot immediately honor an individual's protest or refusal as being able to cope with this requires receptive language skills. Visual supports such as first-then displays, timers and countdowns, a "surprise" visual, and social stories can be used to facilitate receptive language. To be effective, there may need to be some explicit teaching around these. Ideas related to that specific teaching will be included in the blog post mentioned above.

Organization and Transitions: This book defines organization as "the act of arranging elements into an orderly, functional structured whole" and transition as "the process of changing from one state, stage, activity or environment to another." Memory, attention, time management, problem solving, initiating, sequencing and prioritizing are all skills that are important to organization. Developing these skills cannot be done without also developing the receptive language understanding that is necessary for the skills. The visual supports that we put in place for the underlying skills can also serve as an opportunity to work on language development.

Specific things we should be thinking about when teaching organization and transitions includes completing multi-step directions, sorting and organizing materials, following a schedule, understanding and using measures of time, moving from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity or vice versa, dealing with changes in familiar routines, dealing with a delay in receiving an anticipated item or activity and tolerating unexpected events.

Again, we need to think about the language that is important and ensure that we are teaching, modeling and making symbols available. We should consider (1) prepositional words like "in", "on", "away", "up", and (2) time-related words like "first", "then", "later", "wait"...etc., The action and descriptive words outlined in directives section below overlap in to the area of following schedules, sorting and organizing.

There are a lot of visual tools that can be used to support receptive understanding in this area. We need to be cautious that our primary goal with these tools is not that of compliance as that can have va very negative impact on language and communication growth.  These tools will be furthered explained in another post but they include things like visual schedules (including learner constructed schedules), first-then visuals, countdown boards, task or activity schedules, social stories, video modeling, and symbols like "surprise" or "wait".

Requesting: Requesting is defined as "expressing a desire for objects, activities, people, affection, attention, recurrence, assistance, information and/or clarification."

When thinking about requesting, we need to be cautious around believing that there is language understanding if an individual is using a scripted phrase like what would be used in PECs. A scripted phrase is no more meaningful than a single work and doesn't represent generative language. As this book points out, PECs focuses primarily on requesting but there is little opportunity for language development as it consists of mostly nouns, it uses carrier phrases rather than generative word-by-word language, and the individual words represented by the symbols are not actually taught.

As we expand requesting skills, it is important to also focus on descriptive language as having descriptive language allows an individual to request things that may not be represented in their system or are not directly in sight. This doesn't mean we make the individual describe everything they are requesting, but rather that we embed descriptive approaches naturally so that the individual is coming to an understanding of these words through seeing them modeled and used in natural contexts.

Directives: Directives is "explicit instructional language used to control the behaviour of another." Underlying a directive is an implicit understanding that a specific order or command will be carried out. In regards to the "language of control" we are looking at the ability of the individual to expressively give others directives. This does involve receptively understanding the language of directives.

This book outlines the most common directives as being either control based (sit down, quiet, no running), routine-based (get, open, put away, stand up), instructional (cut, circle, point), or play-based (roll, throw, blow, pop). There are many opportunities for teaching vocabulary and generative language (putting words together to create meaning) within directives. Understanding and using verbs, prepositions and descriptors is particularly important. Many of the most important words are included in core language lists. It's also important to recognize that not following directions may be related to receptive language (understanding of what these words mean as individual words and in combination with other words). Not following directions may also be related to things like attention, memory, or inability to organize multiple steps. or just being too overwhelmed/stressed in the moment to be able to follow the direction. When an individual has difficulty with following directions we need to step back and think about weather we are properly scaffolding.

This book offers suggestions around teaching directives by moving from video modeling of the directive to a static picture from the video to incorporating symbols and putting them together to represent the directive. As I read through it, I was thinking of some ways to modify it and embed it with teaching of core words and/or Predictable Chart Writing.

Another suggestion they offer related to play is to create topic displays that allow the user to manipulate symbols in to phrases or sentences. I could see the value in this but as I read through it I also thought about the need to move it over to modeling on a language system so that the words that were being used didn't just disappear when the activity was done. This is also got me thinking about incorporating the idea in teaching core words and/or Predictable Chart Writing.

You can advance these topic displays from simple statements to more advanced by adding in different elements. If used, they recommend using them around highly motivating activities. I'm including pictures of how a "Bubbles" topic display could be expanded over time. Note that there is a line on the side included to "comment" on the activity. As well, these displays can include a "sentence strip" at the top that is either color coded or not in which the symbols and be moved up to create a phrase or a sentence.




Final Thoughts: The communicative functions outlined here are far from the only communicative functions that individuals should be learning but they are important ones to learn in the middle of learning others. As mentioned at the beginning these ones are very restricted in regards to learning conversational skills. 

Ultimately, being explicit about teaching students the language of control positions them to active agents in their lives. It is also important and important step in social/emotional development that positions individuals to engage in organizing and problem solving as if one is unable to consistently exercise control over their own life they will become passive and helpless and are at an even greater risk for abuse.  

Monday, July 4, 2016

Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar


Last week I traveled to Pittsburgh to attend a Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar (PALSS) to learn more about core vocabulary, descriptive teaching, language development and the use of Minspeak language systems. The seminar itself was held in the Semantic Compaction Systems (SCS) office in Pittsburgh and all seminar attendants stayed in SCS guest houses. The days were filled with learning and the evenings with time to process, socialize and connect. It was both an incredibly learning and a wonderful social experience.

As with any learning experience, it will take me some time to piece together what all this new information means when converted in to practice. There was definitely a lot that applied specifically to Minspeak but there was also much that can be applied more generally to thinking about language development for students with complex communication needs.

The Goal is Language Acquisition

The emphasis throughout the seminar was about focusing on language acquistion when working with individuals with complex communication needs. We spent some time looking at Brown's stages of language development. We looked at how we can support students with complex communication needs to go through the same stages of language development as those without... moving from saying single words (juice, mine, again) to combining two words (more juice, that mine, go again) to adding in more clarity through development of syntax and morphology (more juice please, that's mine, let's go again).

We also looked at core language. This was not an new concept to me but it is always good to have it reinforced how important it is to focus in on a limited number of high frequency words that can be used to support communication in all environments.

I walked away from the seminar thinking about how important it is to be aware of language development when working with students who are at various stages of using AAC. A few ideas that I wrote down to explore, think about, revisit or refine include the following. There may be future blog posts on these.
  • Communication Circles and Out and About Groups - A couple of years ago I was doing a few communication circles. This year I didn't do any.  After going through the activities we did at this seminar, I'm thinking it's time to start them up again.
  • Recasting - We talk about modeling at a lot but in this seminar there was an explanation of both modeling and recasting. Recasting is about taking what the individual has said and saying it back a litter further along the language development continuum.
  • Using Icon Family Trees for Interventions - We spent a bit of time with this and I would like to further explore the idea as there are a lot of rich connections that could lend themselves to some fun language intervention activities. 
  • Literacy through Unity Curriculum - I want to get my hands on this :).
  • Use of materials from the AAC Language Lab based on stage of language development. I need to go back and revisit this. 

Promoting Success in the Classroom

I really appreciated that there was time dedicated in this seminar to what supporting a student who uses AAC looks like in reference to curriculum (program of studies). We spent some time looking at the Descriptive Teaching Model (DMT). With this approach, rather than programming key terms from different curriculum areas, the key terms are used as part of the question and then core vocabulary that is on the device is used to answer the questions. This was not entirely new to me as we have done a bit of it but going through and looking at it again reinforced for me the importance of tapping in the curriculum to support language development.

We also spent some time looking at Blooms Taxonomy and thinking through how we could answer questions or have discussions using core vocabulary at every level of Blooms. This was an important reminder to not limit communication to the  lowest levels of just recall as if you have core words,the vocabulary is there to do it all.

Motor and Cognitive Automaticity

We spent time doing hands on learning with Unity 84. What was most interesting with this is that towards the end of the seminar, we were asked to "sky talk" and say some of the things we had been learning throughout the two days. After only a small amount of time practicing, we were all able to go to the general area that was needed to say a variety of different words. Because we were using the same standard 84 icons that were always in the same spot to say all these words, we had learned the general or specific area of almost all the icons.

Although I understood the premise of having a minimum number of icons that you combine in different ways to make different words, it wasn't until we did the sky writing without the device there that I realized how much I was relying on both the repetitive motor planning and the associations of the symbols to the words to become automatic. It was also interesting to note that some will rely on both the association and the motor plan while others will just rely on the motor plan.

Note: The seminar, lodging and meals are free and there is support for travel as well. They are held monthly. I highly recommend the experience. Click here to find out more. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

One Word 2016 - With

It's early. Just past 5:30 a.m. This has always been my favorite time of day. For the most part, the world is still quiet and asleep and it's easier to connect to one's thinking.

The beginning part of the 2015-16 school year brought with it many changes both personally and professionally. 

My son began high school. This is his last transition within the school system and it went incredibly smoothly. I'm seeing him continue to grow and blossom and am realizing how quickly he has grown up which just makes me cherishing the times that we are together all the more. At the same time, adulthood is looming and I'm thinking often now how I can support him to transitioning to an adult life that is his own.

My job hasn't really changed but it changes each year simply because the students I work with and the classrooms I work in change each year. This means each year, I see both a bigger picture and a more focused picture. There are exciting steps forward and frustrating new barriers that need to be figured out that present themselves on a regular basis. 

Each year for the past several years I have spent some time during Christmas break reflecting and looking forward... not so much because of the "new year" that is ahead of us but more because it seems to be the first time that since the beginning of September that I have time to step back, catch my breath and think a bit. It's a great time to analyze how things have gone in the first months and where they might go through the rest of the school year. Each year as I reflect on this, it seems, on some levels, that the vision becomes less and less defined... and on other levels that it becomes more focused. 

As my job has evolved and Mikey (my son) has grown up, I am coming to realize more and more that parenting, teaching and living are not actually about having a lock-step plan that I can be perfectly implemented. I thought that would make things predictable and that predictable equated to "safe". I thought that it was the kind thing to do to try to head off any problems and hurdles before they happened. I thought that it would make the path smoother. 

I'm not sure if I would have come to understand things differently if I had stayed in my own classroom where I could continue to set it all up before hand; Where I could design and script learning and life experiences in a way that I decided was "right". I no longer can do that as I am not the classroom teacher. In the middle of struggling with this and with questioning how I support Mikey moving forward in to adulthood, I began to more deeply understand the opportunity that is embedded in how things have evolved and changed. 

A few years ago when this journey of shifting away from a self-contained approach began, I believed we would see better social and academic outcomes for the students if they were included in general education classrooms and activities. I believed that the peer group that exists in the general education setting meant that there were opportunities and experiences in the general education classrooms that could not be created in self-contained settings. I believed that we would work harder at figuring out modifications, communication systems and assistive technology in a general education setting because it was necessary for participation in that setting whereas in in a self-contained setting you can just shift gears and do something different that the student can already participate in. All of this has proven to be true in the years that have passed... but there have been other things that have emerged through the process. 



Which brings me to my one word for 2016... and the word is simply "with". I have always believed it is critical to listen to the students that we are working with. I have always believed it was important for them to have a voice. I have always believed that the end goal was tied to such concepts as self-determination, autonomy, empowerment. But working with students in spaces that are "not my own" and the fact that my son will need to leave the sheltered world of school in a couple of years deepens my understanding of all of it. It helps me to see not only that we need to work with (rather than for or on or to) the student but also that all of us in the student's circles need to work with each other. 

Empowerment, self-determination, autonomy are not actually about independence. It's about community and relationship. Community and relationships create safety and the conditions for thriving. Being empowered isn't about who builds the path so much as it is about who directs the building of the path. Being empowered means that when things go in the wrong direction or roadblocks present themselves protective factors exist to get through, around or even to turn in another direction if that is what makes sense in the end. For anyone, disability or not, our strongest protective factor is the web of authentic equal and understanding connections to and around us. When we operate from a standpoint of working "with" we are building a web of connections. When we operate from a standpoint of doing "to" or "for" or working "on" we are building a top-down set of single, often unequal connections. 

So my word is "with" and this year to stay true to it, I'm aiming to blog about it on a regular basis :). 

Monday, July 27, 2015

CCN Alphabet: Engagement

What did you do in school today? is a document that summarizes the information on a multi-year research project on adolescent student engagement that was completed by Canadian Educational Association (CEA). In this document, engagement is defined as "the extent to which students identify with and value schooling outcomes, have a sense of belonging at school, participate in academic and non-academic activities, strive to meet the formal requirements of schooling and make a serious personal investment in learning. For the sake of the study, engagement was broken in down in to three components: (1) social engagement, (2) institutional engagement and (3) intellectual engagement.  To be fully engaged in school, a student must experience all three types of engagement. We need to be intentional about facilitating all three types of engagement for students with complex communication needs (CCN) as there are potential barriers that may be experienced in each area.

Engagement, in general, means participating actively and with understanding rather than being passive in a process. Being able to communicate (use of expressive language) and comprehend (use of receptive language) is a necessary condition for active participation in all three components mentioned above. Being able to understand and impact the context that the communication takes place in is another necessary condition for engagement.

More barriers to effective communication exist for people with complex communication needs than for those without. This means there is an increased risk for communication breakdowns. When communication break downs are not resolved, the result is often not feeling like one has control over the situation and this results in disengagement or passive involvement. We also have to question if break downs are often not resolved if that act of putting words into the world is actually communication at all.

One of the goals we often aim for when supporting people with disabilities is "active participation". Even "active participation" can boarder in to passive participation if it is about participating in an activity that is set up and directed by someone else. If we aim past participation toward connecting and contributing, we are aiming at something that is generative, collaborative and co-created. When we are contributing, what we produce is different as a result of our input. Isn't this more of what communication actually is? The challenge then is how do we work with students who have CCN to move along the continuum from presence to contribution.  If this is where we are aiming, supporting the development of communication using a robust language system is a necessity.

The three areas of engagement mentioned in the What did you do in school today? study can apply to any activity or setting.  When we focus on developing the combination of the communication skills needed for social, academic/institutional and intellectual engagement in any setting we need to do it in a way that these skills will not impact only that setting but can be transferred across settings. Below are a few more of my thoughts related to each of these domains of engagement in the school setting specifically but the same concepts can be taken and carried over to any setting.

Social Engagement relates to a sense of belonging and meaningful participation in school life. Students who are socially engaged participate in extra-curriculars and have positive relationships with peers and adults.

Developing the communication skills necessary for social engagement involves focusing on pragmatics - which involves the understanding of the social use of language. The Pragmatics Profile of Everyday Communication Skills in Children is a tool that can be used to focus the work of facilitating the development of the communication skills needed for social engagement. The advantage to using a tool like this is that it involves conversations with the people who are interacting on a regular basis in natural settings with the child/student. This means we can focus on what team members can do to make communication attempts more effective and satisfying... which ultimately will result in increased engagement and development of social communication skills.

Academic (Institutional) Engagement relates to participation in the formal requirements of schooling. Students demonstrate academic engagement through the completion of assignments, attending classes, completing work needed to accumulate credits needed for graduation...etc. The reason for re-framing to "institutional" rather than "academic engagement is that the concept of thinking about the formal requirements of participation could then be applied to other settings. While understanding and functioning successfully withing the context of the institution is important, it is only one small part of the picture. We need to be careful not to think about only this piece when aiming for "participation" or else we are really just sitting on a rocking horse...


The communication skills required for academic (institutional) engagement can at first appear to be rooted in rote repetition. It is important to think and facilitate beyond just repetitive routine communication as the communication skills required for academic (institutional) engagement must be applied to the many other institutional settings that one must function in to survive and thrive in our world. When thinking about facilitating the development of communication skills, we need to always remember that communication is generative and the skills that are learned should be transferable.

Developing the communication skills necessary for academic (institutional) engagement involves focusing on literacy skills as literacy allows for communication across space, people, time and medium. There will be more on literacy in other posts.  It also involves communication for the organizational tasks involved in thriving in institutional settings and the communication skills that are required for self-determined learning. The Bridge School in California has put their Self Determination Program up on their website. Their adapted self determination model focuses on the unique components and activities needed to support development of self-determination with AAC users.

Intellectual Engagement, for this study, is defined as "A serious emotional and cognitive investment in learning, using higher order thinking skills (such as analysis and evaluation) to increase understanding, solve complex problems, or construct new knowledge." Intellectual engagement requires thinking and thinking is the processing of language. When learners engage intellectually, they need to be intentional about connecting and using knowledge, experience, and strategies they have or are being exposed to.

The presumption of competence for people with complex communication needs is connected to the belief that these are students who can engage intellectually. All too often, this is a population that is not given the opportunity to engage intellectually due to some of the traditional beliefs about educational approaches for this population. This begs the question of how one could develop language if they aren't intellectually engaged. The way we design learning experiences matters when we are aiming for intellectual engagement and language development. We need to think in terms of frameworks that provide structure and some level of predictability but then within those frameworks, we must ensure variety and opportunities for interaction and generative communication. If we are pre-defining and scripting everything before it happens, this is not possible.