Monday, July 27, 2015

Reflecting on 2014-15 - CCN Alphabet - E is for 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.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Alberta Summer 2015 Course on Supporting Literacy for Students with Low Incidence Disabilities - My First Thoughts as I Process an Incredible Week of Learning...

Over four years ago, I received the book Children with Disabilities: Reading and Writing the Four Blocks Way as one of the resources for a provincial community of practice I was involved in. The book was the answer to this nagging feeling that there had to be a way to think about "real literacy" for the students that I was working with. So that year, with PODD training behind us and this book in hand, I began the process of shifting toward comprehensive literacy instruction with the students that I work with. Toward the end of that year, I traveled to Toronto to go to a week long course with the authors of the book, Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver. I returned home and began the process of implementing  what I learned, but at the fact that we were also shifting from self-contained to inclusive practices meant that there were times in the next couple of years where decisions about priorities had to be made. After two years of experimenting, I felt we were in a much better place to take a more systematic approach to things and so, last summer, I went to learn from Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver again at Camp ALEC. I returned from that camp not only fired up about literacy, but also fired up about core vocabulary and ensuring that students have a language system that allows them to more deeply engage in literacy learning and life in general.

As the year ended, I was feeling like we were now on the right path and then the opportunity to see Karen and David again, this time right here in Alberta, presented itself.  I have just returned now from spending another week learning from them and am once again excited to put what I've learned in to practice. I am sure that it will take me some time to fully process all that I've learned and that as but for not, I am just going to share my thoughts around the things that most resonated with me at this point.

It's All About Language and the Connecting Arrows
Last summer, when I was able to interact with proficient AAC users, I came to better understand the need to focus on language and communication as a larger part of the picture than what we had been doing. Last week the diagram that is presented very early on in each course and speaks to how speaking (AAC), listening, reading and writing develop in interaction with each other with language permeating every aspect of learning spoke more loudly to me. It was interesting that the statement was made that as time goes on, there is an increased understanding that "the arrows" are what is important about this diagram because that perfectly reflects what I've been discovering over the last few years of trying to put this in to practice. I also find it interesting how language sits as the heart of what thinking and learning are and that I was well in to my teaching career before I ever thought intentionally about language.

A Deeper Understanding of Emergent Literacy
The first course that I took was focused on conventional literacy and so when I returned, I started immediately to try to implement the conventional components with students who were actually at the emergent level. Through the next couple of years, I researched and modified to try to create programs that were more geared toward emergent learners.

Last summer, at Camp ALEC, it became much clearer to me what emergent and conventional programs should look like.  I have a couple of students though who would appear to be "conventional" because they know all of their letters and a whole lot of sight words and can even sometimes answer rote questions from 1970s reading programs. The problem is, these students do not engage in generative writing or just talking about books during shared reading. They are literally lost for words in these situations... either because they are just coming to be able to use their communication system in a generative way or because they have a history that doesn't include any exposure to this type of generative approach to learning.

The statement made this year that emergent literacy is connected to opportunities to actively engage and construct meaning over time with print really resonated with me and confirmed much of what I had been thinking through this past year as I backed up with some of these students to working on the emergent, rather than the conventional, literacy to do every day list. I walked away with more clarity around the idea that for students at the emergent literacy level it is about us creating these opportunities for engagement so that all the foundational pieces can be in place before we focus in on the conventional level.

Universal Design for Learning and Students with Significant Disabilities
I have posted quite a bit in the past about UDL so really appreciated that there was time dedicated to speaking about what it means to  apply UDL concepts to planning for instruction for students who have significant disabilities. Ultimately, applying UDL concepts to this population of students works against the traditional behavioural approach that has been taken in special education and requires a paradigm shift.

UDL is founded on the idea of learner variability and an understanding that the learning process engages three different brain networks including the recognition network (the what of learning), the strategic network (the how of learning) and the affective network (the why of learning). To design learning that addresses learner variability means ensuring that there are multiple means of representation (recognition network), multiple means of expression (strategic network) and multiple means of engagement (affective network). Traditional approaches to teaching students with disabilities is not rooted in a multiple means approach as it is often about rote, repetitive learning of the single task that is currently being "mastered". This approach looks at the what of learning in isolation of the how and the why and often involves some type of extrinsic way of motivating students. The shift to thinking about repetition with variety to ensure multiple means of representation and expression and to focusing on engaging students by focusing on the functions of literacy can be a pretty big paradigm shift when looking at how education should work for this population of students.

Ultimately, I was just thrilled to be sitting in a room where UDL was being discussed with explicit focus on students who seem to often be left out of the UDL discussion.

Supporting Communication
This is one that I came back from Camp ALEC last summer understanding much more deeply but the work that we did with core boards during the workshop last week got me even more excited. David and Karen have been doing work around developing core vocabulary boards that will be available to everyone that can be used as a bridge for those students who need a way to communicate but do not have a comprehensive language system. For a better explanation of this, check out the module on core vocabulary from the DLM Professional Development website. During the week, we used the core boards a few times to engage in different literacy activities and it was great to see just how much conversation could be generated with just the first 40 words. The bottom line is that being able to engage in conversation during literacy activities does not have to be restricted to answering yes/no to lists that have been generated. I went in having a pretty good feel for the power of core but being able to engage with it during the week has me even more excited about it as I could see how it can be used in creating back and forth interactions and in developing much needed skills related to being strategic with the words that are available.

One other important statement that was made during the stretch of time that we were playing with core in one of the activities is that it positions us as communication partners to really support the student and ask questions to understand what they are trying to say. This moves us away from the idea of not responding until something is said in some predefined format and toward authentic and meaningful communication.

Dynamic Learning Maps Professional Development Website 
I wanted to end this post by including a piece that I was very aware before taking this course but came to better understand how it can be used in implementation during the course. So much of the information that David and Karen present at these workshops is now available to anyone online for free through the Dynamic Learning Maps Professional Development website. What a goldmine this is for people who were in the position I was in four years ago - feeling like there was so much more to what literacy instruction could be for these students but not really confident about how to make that happen. Now, all it takes is to go to the Dynamic Learning Maps Professional Development website and begin working through all the modules they have there. The great thing from the implementation standpoint is that a person can work through the modules on their own or use the facilitate module resources to work in a group through the modules. This also opens up opportunities to go back and relearn the things that have been presented or have something to pass on to those who want to learn more about any component of a program that we are trying to implement.  It's such an amazing resource!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Reflecting on 2014-15 - CCN Alphabet - D is for Descriptive Language

Vocabulary is critical to language development. Without sufficient vocabulary, it is hard to understand others or to express your own ideas. We expand vocabulary by exposing children to words and their meaning. With people with complex communication needs we sometimes get stuck in focusing a lot of our effort on nouns simply because nouns represent things that we can touch or point to or match an object/symbol to.

In education, we often think of noun-related questions as the "easiest" questions as they require only "simple memorization". This noun-focused approach to teaching is known as "referential teaching". Referential teaching/questions require a specific one-word answer. These questions are sometimes referred to as "closed-ended". Referential teaching/questions require access to vocabulary that is specific to the topic that is being studied.  If a student has a communication system, this requires that the topic-specific words get programmed or added to the system at the beginning of each new unit of study. These words often have limited functional value beyond that unit of study so do not necessarily stay on the system beyond the time of the unit of study. Because they have limited  functional use, they also do not serve to increase a student's functional language skills.

Gail Vantatenhoven (2012) proposed that an alternative to a referential approach is a descriptive approach. In this approach, the vocabulary that is specific to the topic is still used but it is used by the communication partner/teacher/tutor and then concepts related to that vocabulary are talked about using high-frequency (core) vocabulary that is already available on the individual's communication system. The questions that are asked are more "open-ended" and encourage the use of common words for describing, defining, predicting, explaining, and/or comparing. This approach ensures that students can participate at pretty much any level of language development and that there is ongoing opportunity to work on language learning through the facilitating of more specific description using phrase/sentence construction, use of tense (past, present, future), use of word endings (s, ing, er, est...etc.),

Description and action words that could be used include talking about:
  • how something, someone or some place looks (pretty/ugly, straight/crooked, bright/dark,shiny/dull, neat/messy, it's color...etc.), sounds (noisy/quiet), smells/tastes (stinky, sweet, salty, hot, spicy, sour, nice...etc.) or feels (hot/cold, hard/soft, bumpy/smooth, heavy/light, sticky, fuzzy, slippery, wet/dry...etc.).
  • the quantity, size or shape of the person, place or thing: big/little, long/short, many/few, short/tall, empty/full, far/near, whole/part, all/some/none
  • how the person or thing moves and/or acts: fast/slow, push, pull, turn, roll, drop, fall, write, talk, tell, sing, 

This handout on the Descriptive Teaching Model includes some examples of how this could be implemented in a couple of different curriculum areas.

This post titled Fringe Makes Me Cringe on the blog voices4all shares a mother's story of changing from referential to a descriptive model.

I have just recently experienced the power of using a descriptive language approach with my son. He has an extremely limited number of spoken words and we have tried many different communication supports through the years. Last summer we started using a system that is Core Word based as well as focusing on Aided Language Input and using descriptive language both for his school-based learning and throughout the day. At first, much of what we did was modeling but after a few months, he started using his talk to describe things rather than just to name things. At one point, he wanted to go to a hotel and the word hotel was not on his talker so he proceeded to use words that describe the things we do or see in a hotel - car, sleep, swim, curtains, eat...etc. When I still didn't understand, he went and got a suitcase to try to help with his explanation.  The picture included here is him when he finally got to go to the hotel.

At one point we also started sitting down each night with his talker and talking about what we did that day. Sometimes there were pictures on his iPad that helped and sometimes we just had to go with what we knew. We used a descriptive approach when we did this so there were a lot of things that were happening right within his day that we were wrapping descriptive language around.  There was actually a stretch of time when he was asking to add words to his talker that were tied to things we were doing so that he could use them when we talked that evening (rather than trying to go back and describe it).

These are just a couple of examples of how we have used this approach beyond just classroom application. He has used it to describe quite a few other things that are meaningful to him as they have come up and as he started to do this around things that were personally meaningful to him, he also started engaging in descriptive language related to school content so we could move on from just the input stage and start having some back and forth interactions. The great thing about the approach is that we are able to use the context of what is going on in the classroom to meet him where he is at in regards to language development. We can focus on expanding answers to just one more word to get a bit more specific answer.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Reflecting on 2014-15 - CCN Alphabet - C is for Communication Process

"Communication is the key to learning because a great deal of what we learn depends on our interactions with others. Communication can occur every time two or more people are in proximity with one another, whetehr in person or through electronic means. Although all human being communicate, some individuals may have limited communication skills due to the impact of their disabilities or limited contact with others. Individuals with significant disabilities may not have full access to or full control of the multiple means by which most individuals communicate (e.g. speech, facial expression, body language, print). This inability to express themselves as others would does not mean that these individuals have nothing to say, not does it diminish their need and right to communicate. Teachers and other service provides must assume that all people have the desire to communicate and, therefore, must use their expertise, experience, and commitment to facilitate the development of communication for their students." (Downing, Henreddy, Packham-Harden, 2015, Teaching Communication Skills to Students with Severe Disabilites)

There are many places within the communication process (outlined in the diagram below) where a communication breakdown can occur as a result of misunderstandings and confusion for both individuals with and without complex communication needs.


Understanding the communication process, how we can support individuals with complex communication needs to develop the skills needed during each stage of the process, and the potential barriers that exist at each stage positions us to (1) engineer the environment/situation/context for communication growth and success, (2) understand and implement plans related to how we ourselves and others can be more effective communication partners, and (3) support the individual to become a more effective communicator.

Context: The context is the environment that the communication occurs in. Communication partners and their beliefs about the competence of the individual with complex communication needs will impact the communication process. When we understand all actions of another as intentional, we create the context for communication to occur. Some other thoughts to consider in regards to the communication context for individuals with complex communication needs include:

What communication channel is being used by the people within the context? Is the same channel being used by all people in the context?  Is the person who is expected to use AAC getting input through verbal language only or a combination or verbal language and AAC?

Does the individual with complex communication needs have access to a language system that will allow him/her to communicate a variety of messages for a variety of purposes or has he/she been restricted to only being able to say a handful of things?

Are there activities happening in the environment that require interaction and generative communication or is the environment set up in a way that people are working independently with a large portion of the communication happening being someone directing another person on what to do next?

Source: The source is the reason, or the motivation, that a person would communicate. Because the effort involved in using AAC is often greater than the effort involved in speaking for those without complex communication needs, we need to ensure that we are designing environments and activities that involve high levels of motivation to communicate.

"If the motivation to communicate is greater than the physical effort, cognitive effort and time required then communication will occur. If not, no message will be generated." (Bruce Baker)
If effort is always greater than motivation for an individual, communication development will not happen. When we force a person to communicate something they are already able to communicate effectively with an approach that is less efficient, we are creating the condition where the effort to communicate may be greater than the motivation to communicate. It is important to honour and recognize all the ways another person communicates at the same time as modeling a method that will eventually allow that person to communicate across all contexts and with all people.

Message: The message is what the individual is going to communicate. It could be a question, a comment, a request, a story, an answer, a thought/idea, a rejection, a greeting, a statement...etc. The message is originally what a person wants to say and as it moves through the communication process there are a lot of places where the message can become something different. Sometimes it is difficult to come up with possible messages for a given context. When an individual has a communication device or some other type of visual support, they are able to reference it for possible ideas related to messages that make sense in a given context.

Encoding: This is the process of taking the information that is in one's head and transforming it in to some form that can be understood by others. For those who use spoken words, this simply means putting ideas in to words and saying them. For those who use AAC, there is an complexity involved as it involves not just connecting thoughts and words but connecting thoughts and words and the alternative way to communicating (pictures, written words, sign language...etc.).

For obvious reasons, this is the stage of the communication process that we focus on when trying to implement AAC plans. This is about using the system to generate the message so it makes sense to put our efforts in to supporting this but if we only support this without intentional work for the rest of the communication process, it seems we would have difficulty achieving the goal of autonomous communication.

Channel: This is how the message is transferred - gestures, sign language, visuals, device...etc. The channel is often multi-modal. For individuals that use AAC, barriers related to tone, facial expression, gestures can come in to play. It is important to remember to support a person with complex needs to use multiple channels to communicate in the same way that we all do even if their channels may have to be adapted in some way.

Decoding: This is where the communication partner comes in as decoding is about the communication partner's interpretation of the message. When we are working to support the communication of an individual with complex communication needs, part of the work involves supporting communication partners with understanding and interactions.

Receiver: This is the communication partner. Receiving a message through a channel different from spoken words requires the partner to keep certain things in mind: allow time for the communicator to generate their message, do not put words in to the mouth of the speaker by finishing the statements they start, how to ask for clarification when you don't understand...etc. Developing these skills in communication partners should be part of a communication plan.

Feedback: This is the reaction/response to the message by the communication partner. Was the intended message delivered? Did the intended message create the intended action? Did the message serve to extend the social interaction that was taking place? This part of the process again reflects the importance of thinking about both the communicator and the communication partner when supporting the development of communication skills.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Reflecting on 2014-15 - CCN Alphabet - B is for Behaviour

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness." (Steven Covey)

The goal of traditional behaviour interventions is the prediction and control of another person's behaviour. The idea is to reduce people's actions down to a science where behaviour can be controlled by setting up the environmental conditions to elicit "desired behaviours".  Those trying to control the behaviour are primarily concerned with observable behaviour and pay very little attention to internal events such as a emotions and thinking.  The idea is that through repeated conditioning using rewards or consequences, the appropriate behaviour will become an automatic pattern where the only thinking that is required is that tied to desiring a reward or fearing a consequence. Much of the theory behind this approach is rooted in animal studies and a belief that there is little or no difference between an animal or a human learns. What is missing from the theory is the concept of "free will" which happens is the space between stimulus and response that Covey talks about in the above quote.


The space between stimulus and response holds many opportunities for developing thinking, social, language, self-determination, and imagination skills. When we don't allow for that space in the way we interact with others we are unable to tap in to those opportunities. When we don't allow for that space we foster "learned helplessness" as it is in that space that people experience "free will" (aka self-determination).

Supporting the Development of Emotional Competence

There is a process (outlined in the visual below), that begins at birth, and is facilitated by adults that moves a child toward "emotional competence". Emotional competence is defined as "having the functional skills to recognize, interpret, and respond constructively to emotions in oneself and others." (Saarni,1999)


In the book The Development of Emotional Competence (1999), Saarni outlines a developmental sequence that involves the following 8 skills, placing particular emphasis on how pivotal the role of language development for a child to achieve the third skill on the list.

  1. Awareness of one's own emotions.
  2. The ability to discern and understand other's emotions. 
  3. The ability to use vocabulary of emotion and expression. 
  4. The capacity for empathetic involvement.
  5. The ability to differentiate internal subjective emotional experiences and external emotional expression. 
  6. The capacity for adaptive coping with aversive emotions and distressing circumstances.
  7. Awareness of emotional communication within relationships.
  8. The capacity for emotional self-efficacy.   

This is considered a developmental sequence so a student who has not yet mastered steps 1 through 5 would have difficulty with step 6. Step 4 and 5 require some pretty advanced thinking, language and communication skills. For a student who has difficulty with adaptive coping (Step 6) and has yet not mastered step 1-5, a plan would need to be put in place to both support the learning of previous steps and to reduce and support regulation during distressing circumstances. For a student with complex communication needs, this plan would need to include consideration for how the student will have access to both modeling and use of the language that is needed to develop these skills.

The following documents expand on the concepts of Emotional Competence and Internal Dialogue and offer suggestions for how to incorporate the learning of the above skills in to an AAC intervention plan.

ISSAC 2010 Power Point of Presentation by Sarah Blackstone - Development of Emotional Competence in AAC: An Area that Deserves Our Attention

Development of Emotional Competencies in Children with CCN: Implications for Practice and Research - Power Point Presentation (Blackstone, Wilkinson, Thistle, Rangel, Epstein, Feldman)

Augmentative Communication News December 2004 Issue on Internal Dialogue

A Communication Support Plan Instead of a Behaviour Support Plan

When a child is learning to communicate they move from non-symbolic to symbolic communication.  Non-symbolic communication includes gestures, facial expressions, and movement patterns. Symbolic language includes things like spoken words, written words, use of pictures on a communication system..etc. Symbolic communication allows an individual to communicate with a variety of different people, across time and in a variety of different spaces/contexts. (Source: http://depts.washington.edu/augcomm/03_cimodel/commind2a_emerging.htm).

Bringing teams that support children/students with CCN together to increase awareness of the current forms and intents of non-symbolic communication (including those that team members may label as "bad" or "inappropriate" behaviours) positions the team to be intentional about next steps for supporting the emotional, social and communication development of the student/child. By creating a "communication" plan, rather than a "behaviour" plan from this information, teams are able to focus their efforts on developing the skills in a student/child that will allow him/her to eventually manage themselves rather than putting their effort in to trying to manage them externally.

Here is a possible document that can be used for this: Communication Support Plan. The first column lists a variety of communicative purposes to help frame the group discussion. The second column would include a description of what the student/child does and what we interpret that action as meaning. The third column is to used to ensure that all team members are on the same page in regards to responding to actions in a way that will not inhibit communication growth. If the behaviors/actions that come up during this discussion are unsafe, a proactive safety management plan would need to be considered.  The last two columns look at ideas on how to grow skills, language and communication. When looking at the column related to emotional learning, it would be important for all teams members to be aware of what where the student is developmentally related to 8 skills listed above. Example: if the student is at step 3, it might be worth naming emotions with the communication system related with different activities so that the student comes to make the connection.