Exploring and reflecting on meaningful pathways to inclusive and personalized learning and living for students with complex developmental needs because education should prepare all students for a lifetime of inclusion, connection, growth and learning.

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.
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