Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Descriptive Teaching Model (DTM)

"You are working too hard!" I frequently tell teachers and SLPs when I am called in as a consultant to support them and their AAC users.  So many professionals think they need to program every word that the AAC user will need for an academic lesson, field trip or other occasion.

As most of us know core words are the words that make up 80% or more of our speaking and writing.  Words like put, go, help, like, it, that, why, then.  With core words we can communicate, without them, not so much.  And fringe words give us context.  They are the reasons why we communicate.  We need fringe words to talk about things like soccer, Disney World, our new bicycle.  Important fringe words that are used frequently in the lives of our students belong on their devices for example pudding, blanket, My Little Pony, awesome, seizure, WWE or sensory table. Deciding the fringe words to program involves interacting with the child, understanding his or her interests and the interests of peers and siblings and figuring out what fringe words are salient and necessary to the child.  

Rarely are science vocabulary words like magma or magnetic pole going to be salient and necessary. Or what I like to call "recyclable", they will be used just once and never again. Other non-recyclables are Battle of Little Big Horn, peninsula or the names of all of the characters in the months shared reading.  How then do we teach, talk about and assess? (Which is only 20% of what we do - right? We teach and talk and THEN assess!) 

Well we need to create a paradigm switch in our own heads and that of other professionals and paraprofessionals.  We need to start asking questions that allow our students to answer using the words they already have on their device.  This serves multiple purpose (beyond saving us the hours and hours of programming), the most important purpose is our AAC users learn how to be creative and use the words they have to say what they need to say.  AAC is usually a life time learning process for our students and being able to communicate about topics when they don't have the specific words they need is an essential life skill.

For example, I was chatting with my friend Owen at Camp Communicate in Maine.  He was trying to
tell me his idea.  After a few miscommunications and much frustrations he was able to say "tiny plays" and he had previously given me the hint that the word started with 'S'.  Skits!  Owen was able to use his communication repair skills and practice with using descriptive language to help me understand. 

Gail VanTatenhove invented the Descriptive Teaching Model to address this issue.  She explains that teachers typically us a referential style of teaching, "What land form is surrounded by water on three sides?" and the students answer in a single word with a very specific fringe word, "peninsula".   This doesn't work well for our AAC users.  So instead we can ask questions they can answer using the words that they have, "Tell me about the water around this peninsula?" and the student can answer something like "not all around" or "almost all around" or "around most of it".  Does the child know what a peninsula is?  Clearly he does.  You could ask some more, follow up descriptive teaching method questions if you needed to be more sure he understood.  Similarly if you are teaching about the British Army during the revolutionary war you could just say, "Tell me something you know about the British Army."  All sorts of answers would be appropriate, "they wear red", "they are mean", "they fight", "they have horses", "they hurry" and so on and so on. 

Here are some resources to help you learn about and begin to use the DTM. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Age Respectful vs Age Appropriate

Age-appropriate has long been a mainstay of special education and related fields.  On one hand it is an important concept; since it means treating everyone as the age they are (no baby talk, no rubbing people's heads, etc). On the other hands it puts us in then position of deciding what interests and hobbies our students are "allowed" to have. And who are we to judge? Would it really be the end of the world if a young adult carries a Tinkerbell backpack or a teenager wears a Mickey Mouse shirt? Why is it an individual without a developmental disability can do those things but a person with a developmental disability can't? (Have you seen the men's T-shirt section in Target?)

It is time we all embrace a new way of looking at this. Let's think about age respectful instead of insisting on age appropriate.

What is age respectful?

Age respectful means that when something is our choice we choose items, activities and interactions that are respectful of the age of our student in our setting.  We choose typical and adapted books that will be motivating and are respectful of the students age (an adapted version of Huck Finn in middle school instead of a Brown Bear, Brown Bear, for example). While at the same time we allow choices made by the individuals themselves to reflect their tastes and interests.

Age respectful means we offer and teach how to do new activities and use new materials while never judging the student for choosing to return to old activities or materials.

Age respectful provides multiple meaningful opportunities to expand exposure to new ideas, activities and experiences because we like what we know.  We do this not to replace "age inappropriate" choices but to augment and expand our students' horizons. If we wish to be truly successful at this we try to stay just one step beyond current tastes and interests.

Age respectful re-frames (formerly "age inappropriate") interests as legitimate hobbies, collections and interests . Meaning that an interest in Elmo including collecting Elmo items can and is a hobby for many people of all abilities.

Age respectful means that we teach our students manners. All of our students. Students who love Barney learn that one really needs to ask and gage the interest of others before sharing about that hobby enthusiastically. Students who don't share that interest need to learn how to politely redirect the conversation.

Age respectful means that the rules apply evenly. If bringing toys to class is unacceptable then it is unacceptable for ALL students from the student with the Star Wars collectibles to the student with the Big Bird toy.

Age respectful is about making choices that respect our students while age appropriate is about assuming we can and should make choices FOR our students.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Not there YET!

Often times I share success stories about students I work with - the girl with Rett Syndrome who is reading, the boy with Cerebral Palsy and multiple disabilites who writes stories with his communication book, the teenager with Angelman Syndrome who received a speech device a year ago and saw a massive decrease in agressive behaviors.  These stories, true and meant to inspire and illustrate often have a very different result.  One result I commonly hear is educators, therapists and parents who think that there is something exceptional about the child in the story. Some gift or ability that their student with a similar disability does not posess.  This leads the educators, therapists and parents to believe that their student, client or child can't possibly achieve the literacy, communication, self-regulation or other skill examined in the story.

The problem is that the comparison being drawn is often between a child who has had specfic intervention and a child who has not.  This is like comparing a "before" makeover picture of one person with the "after" makeover picture of another.  The girl with Rett Syndrome, while wonderful and smart, did not suddenly begin reading because she has something others with Rett Syndrome don't have.  She learned to read because of a concerted long term effort by her TEAM. This included not only excellent instruction by a multi-disclinary TEAM but also faith that even if we never got to independent reading with comprehension our efforts were worth it. The boy with CP and other disabilities who writes stories (usually about superheros) with his PODD communication book isn't an exception he is simply a child who's family decided to focus on what he can do,  to set high expectations and to hire homebased TEAM members to teach him the communication and literacy skill he needs to learn at grade level in school. The teenager who finally got a communication system at 13 and learned to use it to help regulate her anxiety and behavior doesn't  have the genetic mutation that leads to a less challenging form of her diagnosis, there is nothing that makes what she can do somehow singular or  or "higher functioning". The reason she has those skills is a year of intensive three to five hours a week of specific intervention to teach her how to do those things with family follow through at home.

All of this is to say that when we hear about children similar to our students, clients or own children who are doing things our kids aren't,  we shouldn't  assume that our kids will never get there... Or that the other child possess something ours doesn't.  We should realize they just aren't there YET!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Video Modeling for AAC

Video Modeling is an evidence based practice in special education.  Entire new companies have
popped up claiming their way of doing it is magical even!  However, it doesn't take much to do effective video modeling for any skill, including Augmentative and Alternative Communication.  Essentially all you need is the child's communication system or a duplicate of it and a way to record video - which can be your phone, a tablet or a camera.

The purpose of video modeling is to create a video representation of a skill that can be watched and imitated.  Video modeling doesn't replace instruction, visual supports or interaction.  Instead it reinforces skills taught and, for some learners, can act almost as a video encyclopedia where they can "look up" how to perform a skill.  Video modeling in AAC allows students to have additional aided language stimulation outside of instruction or interactions.  It can also be a way for the student to review vocabulary they have learned.  Video models of AAC can be used instructionally or students can self-select watching them during leisure time. 

There are quite a few resources online to guide the process of selecting what to target for video modeling, creating the video and collecting data on video modeling effectiveness, such as this one from the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders. There is also much to be found on Google Scholar to provide as evidence that video modeling is best practice. 

In general I use a more relaxed approach to video modeling for AAC with the following in mind:
  • When possible involve the student in the making of the video or the selection of the vocabulary or skill to be modeled.  This creates "buy in" and many students like to see themselves on the screen.  Some of my students who have helped to choose topics for video modeling learn ask to have a video when they are having trouble finding certain vocabulary!
  • Be sure the video focuses on the skill/vocabulary you want to teach.  Plan out ahead of time what you will model.
  • Make sure the video is engaging and motivating, especially if the student will be encouraged to self-select watching the video.  Using puppets, music or other motivating topics can be useful. 
    Porkchop the Pig Puppet Modeling AAC
  • Keep the videos short.  Under a minute is usually good, but under 3 minutes for sure! 
  • Create an easy way to select and access the videos for parents, aides or the student him or herself.  This can be using an app like Pictello, Go Talk Now, Niki Play or Word Toob on an iPad or similar apps on other tablets.  It can also simply be uploading the videos to YouTube, creating a playlist and bookmarking or copying a shortcut to the desktop. 
  • Consider creating playlists where the video models are a "commercial break" between preferred other videos.  The Therad app allows for this to be done on the iPad but it can also be done using YouTube or any other means of creating a playlist.  This is especially effective for kids who are "video junkies!
  • If you happen to catch good samples of effective communication by the student or aided language stimulation on video during sessions you can add these to the playlists as well.
Sample Video Models
Video model of how to say stop.

Video Model of Drink with a Puppet

This video shows a model of how to find the word "parade" after the student asked for it. 

Here is a video of a student who got herself into a situation where she needed help.  (She insisted I make the video before I helped her! Just so you think I didn't leave her stranded!)

Video Model Sample from Other People
Asking for More While Shredding

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What I Wish I Knew at 22

Congratulations new special needs teachers!  Here are somethings I would tell myself, the young teacher, at 22, if I could (and if I thought I would listen - because I doubt I would have).

  • All you can do is your best, and you need to do it every day.
  • What you have now is passion, what you will have in 15 years is experience, if you want to make it through the journey from one to the other then you need to take care of yourself, keep learning and make it about the kids.
  • Do the next right thing.  That is how you will be able to sleep at night when push comes to shove.
  • It is doubtful you will ever really write another lesson plan, task analysis or paper but you will write evaluations, IEPs and progress notes.  If you can't learn to love them at least learn how to get through them and do them well.  A moment of great pride will be when someone tells you that you "really captured the child" in an evaluation, strive for that, see these items as ways to celebrate the gifts of each child.  (Remember there is a chance people will be cutting and pasting from your work until this child is 21 - make it something worth cutting and pasting!)
  • Don't cut and paste the narrative parts of any evaluation or IEP.  The child deserves your full attention for that part.  If you are going to cut and paste anything else be sure you don't forget to change the gender, name, etc.  You may know that the statement about, say, the reason the child requires a special vehicle, is the same from IEP to IEP but the parents don't.
  • It absolutely is possible to frame everything you need to put in a report or IEP in a positive manner.  "Jane is a wheelchair user who depends on others for propulsion" is a better choice than "Jane is unable to walk or push her own wheelchair".  Take the time to find the positive.
  • When it comes to Velcro designate a pair of scissors, "Velcro only" and remember "Soft Stays, Rough Rides" or "Hard on the Card" (the fuzzy/loop part goes on the wall/board/book and the hook part goes on the thing you will be removing and replacing). Trust me this is good advice and will save many headaches! Also "Soft Stays" means you can use felt or Veltex or your sweater or a cubicle wall to stick your cards/items/misc too. 
  • You are paid in stories, you are the one who gets to decide what kind of stories they will be.
  • Teachers' rooms can be pits of despair (yes, like in the Princess Bride) avoid them if the crowd who is there when you are is negative or complains a lot.  Try to surround yourself with people who love being a teacher.
  • School picture day might be a bit of a hassle for you, but for parents it is a view of who their child is at school.  Take time to ask if parents want glasses or a bandana on or off, wheelchairs under a drape or not or a clean shirt put on.  It matters.  Then do whatever it takes to coax a smile and charm the photographer into taking a few more shots if needed.
  • Don't terrify parents about whatever the next transition is (be it from EI to pre-school or to adult services), that doesn't help anyone, instead help them know what to look for to know things are going well.
  • Parents need to have the information you have about learning, communication, socialization and more.  Try to find a way to share it with them.  Your 30 hours a week for 44 weeks of a school year pales in comparison to their time to teach their child.  Help them be their child's best teacher.
    Image result for flies with honey
  • As my grandfather would have said, "You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar -- but if you really want to catch those flies consider a little BS."  (I'm still terrible at it but learning to "play the game" is a valuable skill.  It might feel like you are being manipulative but it is really being strategic.  It's a fine line.)
  • You will have bad days, you will go home crying, you will find yourself worrying about work.  That means you care.  Find ways to get through those days that reinforce your passion. 
  • Enjoy teaching, seriously, have fun.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Some Angelman Tips

After about five months using a robust system Samantha can order cake!
It is unlikely that any student can make you feel more appreciated than one with the social gifts often
present in a child with Angelman Syndrome. Angelman Syndrome or AS occurs in about 1 in every 15,000 births.  The child with AS is likely to have motor, balance and coordination issues that affect both fine motor skills and gross motor skills.  Medically, seizures occur in many cases and feeding issues may occur in infancy. Problems with sleep are common. 

Children with AS tend to be social, have a happy disposition and may have stereotypical hand movements like flapping.  Apraxia of speech affects all children with AS and most have only a few spoken words or communicate only using alternative methods like facial expressions, gestures, adapted sign language, and augmentative and alternative communication.  Like all children who are non-speaking sometimes behaviors act as communication if no other means is provided and taught.  Many children with AS are attracted to water and enjoy swimming, bathing and water tables. It also is fairly common for children with AS to be attracted to media such as music, videos and interactive electronic games and devices. 

Students with AS may have vision issues including cortical vision impairment, ocular albinism and other problems.  They may also have problems with auditory processing.  Many children with AS have much fairer complexions their the rest of their families.  Most learners with AS are "consistently inconsistent"  they should be measured by their best days not by the days when seizures, a disorganized sensory system or sleep issues are impacting them.  Children with Angelman Syndrome, like children with many other genetic and acquired disabilities who can not be formally evaluated, are almost always underestimated.  High expectations and a presumption of competence are essential in teaching these (and all) children.

Some tips:
  • Remember what apraxia (a key component of Angelman Syndrome) is:

    • a inability to perform a task, especially speech even though:
    • Cracking jokes!
      • the request is understood
      • there is willingness to do the task
      • the muscles work properly
      • the task may have already been learned
    • This means
      • you can't assume a child with AS doesn't understand, is "acting out" or "refusing", is physically incapable or that he or she has forgotten what was learned
      • you can assume that the more the child wants to do or say something the harder it will be and he or she is inevitably more frustrated than you are
      • the child with AS will be consistently inconsistent, not because of intelligence or behavior but because of apraxia
      • a burst of strong emotion may override apraxia 
      • Also since you can't measure the child's knowledge fully because of the combination of fine motor challenges and apraxia of speech, plus possible vision and auditory processing issues, even using high technology, you must assume that the child is competent to avoid causing an developmental disability through educational neglect
Thanks for the gifts.
  • Introduce robust Augmentative and Alternative Communication early
    • but it is never too late (the student in the picture to the right started using a robust AAC system at age 12 and is able to communicate many thoughts, ideas and feelings with her system)
    • remember you have to have words to use words - hence the robust system
    • don't get stuck in the request rut, requesting (manding) is an important skill but it doesn't need to be the first or only thing you work on in AAC, furthermore a child who is only able to request will appear to have severe developmental disabilities even if he or she does not because requesting is such a tiny part of communication and social connection.  Imagine a conversation if you were only able to request.
    • Masked buttons aid learning
      •  "Hi!" "I want iPad."
      • "How are you?" "I want drink.
      • "I see you have your red shirt on today" "I want outside"
    • masking (hiding) some vocabulary on high tech devices is one way to build motor patterns as language increases
    • intensive aided language stimulation is very effective in teaching use of communication systems or devices to people of all ages with AS (as it is in nearly all AAC learners)
    • video modeling is extraordinarily useful in AS, children with AS love to watch videos of themselves and favorite people modeling communication, life skills and academics on a computer, tablet or television screen - even mirroring a live stream of a classroom lesson or aided language stimulation can be a great tool

    • include the ability to communicate about favorite people, places and things as well as favorite past events in the AAC system along with the core vocabulary and student specific fringe words, talking photograph albums are a great way to do this! 
    • social media is an amazing inspiration to get kids who turn to faster methods like adapted sign and gestures to practice using their AAC systems - sending video texts, using Skype or FaceTime or just making and emailing a video to Grandma can create some AAC miracles 
    • avoid forcing communication use when students could be independent one their own (i.e. don't force to ask for each bite of food if they can self feed; don't force them to ask for a book or to turn the page of a book if they can just do like all the other kids and go get the book or turn the page), however these situations are perfect for modeling language on the AAC system 
    • consider alternative access methods if pointing is too difficult this can include using a
      1 for talking and 1 for playing!
      stylus, whole hand pointing, a head pointer, a flashlight, a pointing splint, partner assisted scanning and even, for some children with AS and very complex bodies head tracking or eye gaze run systems (the One Little Finger song is great for working on pointing!)
    • remember to be mindful of vision, auditory processing and sensory needs as you choose an AAC system, as well as when you design and implement instruction  
    • Remember the child needs someone to talk with, something to talk about and something to use for talking this often means a tablet for playing with and one for talking about what you are doing!
    • perceptual salience is key in AS, you must talk about and model how to talk about what is grabbing the child's attention at that moment - even if you ignore it they won't!  Name it and then you can move on, better yet name it and use it to inspire communication teaching!
    • embed AAC instruction into highly motivating activities

  •  Inclusion is a great way to ensure peer relationships and high expectations
    • full time inclusion is ideal
    • but some inclusion is better than none!
    • inclusion should include inclusive instruction (not just "specials" and lunch)  See Erin Sheldon's research on this topic for more.
    • consider inclusion in social rites of passages like birthday parties, religious ceremonies, sleep-overs, dances, prom and graduation and start teaching skills to be part of these things well ahead of time 
    • video modeling is a great way to teach both academics and social skills in the classroom and peers are often eager to help with video creation projects  
  • All Behavior is Communication!
    • Create a communication glossary that shows images or videos of the child using
      Owen's sign for "yes"
      adapted sign, gestures or other communicative behaviors so everyone will understand them.  You can then pair the glossary entries with videos of how to say the same things using the AAC system as a teaching tool.
    • Use visual supports frequently such as visual schedules, social stories and visual rules
    • Be careful not to interpret vision, auditory or sensory issues as negative behaviors
    • Remember learning cannot happen until sensory needs are met, be sure to offer sensory choices appropriate to the child's current state of arousal and teach self-regulation.  Work with OT and PT to ensure the child get enough time to move, is properly positioned when seated and has the sensory tools he or she needs at the time he or she needs them
    • Build positive behavior supports and self-talk into AAC systems.  Respecting a child's communication that she "Does not feel safe because there are too many people" is better than having your hair pulled and allowing a child to cue himself to say "I can have safe hands" is better than creating a reliance on an adult to do that for him
    • Be careful not to socially reinforce something that might be cute or funny the first time but won't be the 300th time.  Remember that it is easier not to socially reinforce something the first time it happens than it is to replace that behavior later!
    • In the same vein be sure to socially reinforce appropriate communication as it happens, individuals with AS tend to be socially motivated and skilled at figuring out how to get their social needs met

Monday, April 13, 2015


So often children and adults with complex communication needs get stuck with their only augmentative communication option being a means to request. As if "I want" is the most motivating, most valuable or most important thing to say. Sometimes kids and adults spend years "working on" requests because someone has decided on an often arbitrary data point that will "prove" they are ready to tackle some other communicative function. Let's make the idea that there is more to life than requesting go viral! Posts pictures and videos of kids and adults using AAC for all kinds of things - even if they don't do it perfectly. Let's prove we support every kid and adult with complex communication needs having a robust communication system that is rich with core vocabary and implemented through evidence based practices like aided language input that lead to every AAC user being able to say #icandomorethanrequest. So let's post those pics and videos! Here are some to get us started:

(Just to be clear - requests are absolutely  a part of a being a competent augmentative communicator and are vital to any robust AAC system. I'm not "dissing" requests or teaching how to request. I am advocating that all communicative functions are important and that everyone should be able to do more than request!)

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