2002 Conference Proceedings

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HOW TO REALLY INCORPORATE THOSE SYMBOLS INTO THE CLASSROOM

Teri Vogeding, M.S. CCC-SLP
LATCH School Inc.
8145 N. 27th Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85051
Phone: (602) 864-2971
Email-T424and99@aol.com 

Andrea David, M.S. CCC-SLP
LATCH School Inc.
8145 N. 27th Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85051
Phone: (602) 864-2971

The Speech-Language Pathologists at LATCH School Inc. work collaboratively with teachers to maximize communication opportunities in the classroom setting. It is the focus of the Speech and Language Department to assess, plan and implement specific symbol programs within the framework of each student's strengths and needs as per their Individualized Education Plan.

The work of Goosens', Elder, (1994) and Musselwhite (1988) have been highly influential in shaping our principles of intervention and philosophy of communication. The body of their research suggests that through empowerment of language, non-traditional speakers can participate in their most "basic human right: communication."(Goosens' & Elder, 1994)

The purpose of this paper is to describe how we have integrated multiple approaches of communication enhancement with classroom experiences that really work.

Our approach is comprised of a sequential 5 stage training protocol. Stage 1 is the Environmental Survey. This assessment includes taking an inventory of communication opportunities, a review of the classroom schedule, the existing use of communication and consultation with the teacher. In addition, we recommend mapping out a hierarchy of needs based on the results of the preliminary survey of the environment. Based on these findings, an appropriate starting point can be identified.

For a classroom with no existing supports, the symbols should be presented in an activity that occurs as a part of a predictable routine and is also reinforcing to the student. In addition, for communication training to occur, there must be a communication partner and opportunities for the student to communicate. For example, a student displays signs of frustration during lunch, is completely dependent upon staff members and does not interact with his peers. Food is a primary reinforcer for this child. It is determined that symbols could be implemented during snack or lunch to foster independence and choice making skills. After interviewing the teacher and observing the classroom routine, snack time appears to provide more of an opportunity for choices, less distractions and fewer responsibilities for the staff. It is concluded that an introduction of symbols will occur during snack. The first stage is complete when the communication environment has been thoroughly analyzed and organized with respect to the student's needs, physical limitations and opportunities for interaction.

Stage 2 is Symbol Construction. The most critical task of this stage is the assessment of the student's current vocabulary and the vocabulary that is needed for the activity. The vocabulary is chosen by evaluating the student's concrete vs. abstract vocabulary needs along with the vernacular phrases of the student's peers and language expectations. For example, vocabulary during the snack could reflect the child's favorite available food, disliked foods, drinks, social comments, utensils/supplies, and requests (ie. for help/more).

It should be noted that there are a variety of symbol sets available commercially. Some of the more widely used symbol sets include Picture Communication Symbols (Mayer-Johnson), Min Speak Symbols (Prentke Romich) and DynaSyms (Sentient Systems). It is of critical importance that the symbol association remain constant and consistent across situations, overlays and classroom environments.

Stage 3 is Presentation. In this stage, certain organizational principles must be applied. One must identify the number of symbols in a predetermined set, the distracter symbols (if any) accompanying target symbols, the role of the trainer and whether an established system (ie. Picture Exchange Communication System) is to be used. When determining the size and number of symbols to present, the student's visual discrimination skills, cognitive abilities and current vocabulary should be considered. For example, if the student can identify an apple when looking in a magazine, he will most likely be able to identify the apple symbol from a field of four. If a student is unable to distinguish an "apple symbol" from a "cracker symbol," he would be presented with the target symbol in isolation or possibly paired with a known disliked food symbol.

An unrelated distracter symbol is often presented when attending skills are limited, cognitive level is low or visual discrimination skills are poor. A distracter symbol can be used to focus the student during choice making. An unrelated distracter symbol does not include any characteristics of the target symbol such as color, function or shape. For example, if the target symbol is an apple, the unrelated distracter symbol could be a hairbrush, book, keys, etc. It would not be an edible item, red in color or round in shape.

The role of the trainer is to support the student's success and foster independence. The trainer offers the choices and provides necessary assistance but does not outwardly anticipate the student's needs. The trainer should be cautious to avoid power struggles with the student.

For students who do not initiate communication exchanges, do not respond to social rewards and/or have difficulty attending, the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is recommended. PECS was originally developed to use with young children with autism or pervasive developmental disorders. However, PECS has been modified and expanded to be used with individuals of all ages and with a wide variety of communication disorders (Frost and Bondy, 1994).

Stage 4 is Symbol Accessibility. This stage can be addressed after an approach has been targeted and presented. The identification that was made in Stage 1 (snack) has become the area of focus. The area will be submerged with the predetermined vocabulary symbols. Symbols are placed within reach of the student, therefore becoming part of his/her environment. This will ultimately lead to spontaneous communication opportunities. For example, the targeted "snack area" may have snack food symbols displayed across the food cabinets and containers, drink symbols next to the refrigerator, utensil symbols on or next to the drawers, condiments on the connecting wall and/or social comments and requests next to that. The symbols can be organized in any manner, but once again, should be constant and consistent. The symbols need to remain visible to staff and to students throughout the day.

The final stage 5 is Training. The training stage is implemented based upon each student's needs and abilities. Sometimes, a student will quickly learn some aspects of symbol use and slowly learn other aspects. Each child is different and each child learns at his/her own pace. As with all teaching methods, there is a prompt hierarchy to be considered. Before any cues or assistance is provided, a pause (approximately 3 seconds) should be observed. This allows for a student's delay in processing and provides time for the student to respond independently. Environmental cues occur naturally without forethought or planning (ie. entering the kitchen for snack). Gestural cues include but are not limited to head nods, eye-gaze, positioning and pointing. Verbal cues (ie. "Give it to me.", "Pick one.") are often used next; however, trainers must be cautioned against creating prompt dependency, because verbal cues are more difficult to phase out than physical cues. This situation often creates a more dependent student rather than an independent symbol user. Physical prompts range from light nudging or pressure to full physical assistance. Of course, one always wants to provide the least amount of assistance as possible.

An additional role for the trainer is to create communication opportunities for their student. This can easily be obtained through the use of sabotage techniques and creative stupidity. Sabotage routines are particularly effective when the activity is familiar and predictable to the student. In order to create communication opportunities through sabotage, the trainer disrupts the expected event sequence by failing to perform an mandatory action, performing and inaccurate action, withholding a required prop, providing and incorrect prop or performing an action out of sequence (Goosens' & Elder, 1994).

Creative stupidity is a good way for the trainer to avoid a power struggle or to avoid giving too many directive statements to the student. For example, if the student points towards the bagel rather than using his symbol the trainer would typically redirect the child to the symbols. The facilitator may even say "You need to give me the symbol," setting up a power struggle and squelching the student's initiation attempt. If creative stupidity is used instead, the trainer could "play dumb" and act like he/she is trying to give the student what he/she wants but can't understand the student. "Here you go, you wanted the napkin. You didn't? I'm sorry, what did you want?" The trainer can use a gestural cue and nod his/her head towards the symbols.

In conclusion, incorporating symbols into the classroom routine should be done using a consistent, collaborative approach that has been presented in 5 stages with symbol association remaining constant and consistent. The trainer is an integral component of a successful and meaningful communicative experience for the student.

Goossens', C., Crain, S., & Elder, P (1992). Engineering the Preschool Classroom Environment for Interactive Symbolic Communication. Southeast Augmentative Communication Conference Publications, Clinicians' Series.

Elder, P. & Goosens', C. (1994). Engineering Training Environments for Interactive Augmentative Communication. Southeast Augmentative Communication Conference Publications, Clinicians' Series.

Musselwhite, C. (1988) Communication programming for persons with severe handicaps. (2nd ed.) Pro-Ed.

Frost,L.& Bondy, A.(1994)The Picture Exchange Communication System-Training Manual. Pyramid Educational Consultants, Inc.


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