Power Up: Getting Your AAC Ready for a New School Year

I was asked recently by a student’s advocate to list the Top 10 “Traits” of an AAC-User Classroom. I think they are good to keep in mind as we start a new school year off, whether with new or returning students.

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  1. All students who do not have sufficient verbal language skills to meet all of their communication needs have an aac system that offers them at least basic core vocabulary.

  2. Staff are consistently using Aided Language Stimulation and modeling, and are familiar enough with the students’ systems to do so effectively.

  3. Staff redirect students to their aac systems if they are not understood, or if they are relying on gesture and body actions when they are able to use more standard modes.

  4. Staff model and require communication for a variety of functions - not just requesting.

  5. AAC users are being taught literacy skills using effective teaching strategies.

  6. Staff repeat, affirm, and then elaborate student responses.

  7. AAC skills are taught and reinforced in natural, contextual activities, not drill formats.

  8. Core vocabulary is taught, reinforced, and expanded continuously and topical materials for the classroom are modified to use core words.  Teachers are teaching descriptively, not referentially.

  9. Student narrative skills are a focus of classroom activities.

  10. Conversational interactions are a focus of classroom activities.

What are the top take-aways from these AAC classroom must-haves?  Model, model and model some more. Recognize and respond to all communication. Presume competence for teaching literacy skills.

These are great strategies for identifying and teaching the students who are using AAC.  But then there are the nuts and bolts of keeping the systems running and relevant.  What are the ‘Top 3 Issues that come up in the AAC Classroom?’

I used to hear constant complaints from SLPs and teachers about the amount of time and energy it took to program or design aac for each student.  More and more, however, people are looking at more comprehensive systems that offer a wide array of core and fringe words so that students have sufficient vocabulary from the start to engage in the classroom.

But that doesn’t eliminate the need for a plan of action.  I try to stress at IEPs and Team trainings that there needs to be a plan in place for adding needed vocabulary, and for doing so mindfully.  For those who use high tech systems, a schedule for backing up is also recommended and a paper-based back-up needs to be provided and maintained.

I have often been called into schools when the system has gotten out of hand.  Sometimes, there are too many cooks in the kitchen.  There ought to be a single person who acts as the gatekeeper.  All requests to add to the system need to go through this individual, even if (s)he is not the one doing the actual programing.  This person needs to be accessible, needs to have frequent enough contact with the system, and needs to know enough about the system to make changes mindfully.

Knowing where to put new words, add new categories, or place new topics is not always an easy task.  The person doing so needs to be able to think several steps ahead.  Is what I am doing allowing room to grow?  Where will more vocabulary go?  Is there a consistent structure for this?  

Adding a new page for every topic covered, activity planned, and book read is a frequent misstep I see.  Students’ systems become clogged with ever-increasing pages or links to vocabulary that may be used for a day or a week, and then never needed again.  Thinking about core words and descriptive teaching can eliminate the need for all of those pages, just by thinking a little differently about vocabulary.

I suggest parents and teachers both keep a list someplace handy to jot down vocabulary that comes up as not in the system, that would be useful to have in the system, that will continue to be functional.  Depending upon how critical the words are, a plan can be made for updating the system every (x) days.  Some vocabulary can be added on the fly as needed, too.

Having a back-up plan - or not -  is another problem I often encounter.  Some teachers and SLPs are wonderful about backing up the high tech system every time they make changes.  Others get busy and forget.  You only have to have one crash that loses valuable time and vocabulary to change that habit.

But what about low or no-tech?  Everyone is in a rush these days to get to the technology.  However, technology all too often fails.  The students with whom I work can go through iPad screens on a weekly basis.  And even without destructive behaviors, computers freeze and glitch and cause all sorts of problems.  And then….. the student has no way to communicate.  

Teams frequently look surprised when I mention making a paper back-up.  Nobody wants to go back to the bulky book of pages.  But sometimes you just have to.  Make sure the back-up book is organized with the same structure and vocabulary organization and location as the tech system.  You don’t want the student to suddenly hit a steep learning curve when he’s also lost his voice.

Don’ts for back-ups? Be careful about just printing out the pages from the high tech system without adding a way for the student to navigate, such as tabs.  Don’t revert to basic choice boards or PECS in the interim.  This will take away valuable communication opportunities for all of the wait time.

What are the take-aways from these top issues?  

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Assign a single gatekeeper to keep track of and organize additions to the system.  Assign someone to be responsible for back-ups to the system on an agreed-upon schedule.  This doesn’t need to mean connecting to a computer for a high tech backup.  It can be as simple as making extra copies of the communication books, laminating them, and storing them until needed.

Keep a list of words that aren’t in the system that need to be.  This can also include words that are in the system, but not convenient for this user and are more important to him than the system implies.

Have a backup plan that includes a well-structured equally robust paper option with multiple copies  and frequent electronic back-ups if appropriate.

Running a classroom or caseload with multiple AAC users can be a big undertaking.  But it doesn’t have to be a lot of work with the right strategies and a little planning.  Start your school year off right:  Plan for AAC to work everywhere.

Susan Berkowitz, MS CCC-SLP, MEd., has been a speech-language pathologist for 40 years. She has worked mostly with children and adults with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, and other developmental disabilities, as well as 8 years in the language-based classrooms in a school district. Susan has worked in public and non-public schools, residential settings, and nonprofit community agencies. She has written for peer-reviewed professional journals and presented at international conferences. Visit her website  and blog for additional resources. For her complete resume, click here.