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.

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