This post originally appeared on the blog Autism Classroom News & Resources.
Ever asked one of your students about what they did at home last weekend and got a blank stare? Ever asked your own child with ASD about what happened at school? More interestingly, have you ever gotten an answer to those questions but then not been sure if it was accurate? Even our highly verbal kids have a hard time communicating about experiences. That may include telling you about their trip to Disney, a fight they had with someone, or a field trip they took. Or it could be as simple as talking about what they had for lunch today. Some look at you with a blank stare and others tell you something but you either don’t know if it’s true or not (or sometimes you still don’t know what happened).
Why Is it So Hard?
To be able to communicate experiences is difficult for our kids for a ton or reasons. In order to tell you about their day, they have to:
- recall the events that happened
- sequence them in an order to tell you about them
- have the receptive and expressive vocabulary about the activity
- access the vocabulary about the activity
- formulate a narrative in order to relate the event
- regulate the emotions that might have been involved with the event
- …and I’m sure there are more.
And if they use augmentative communication, they have to have the vocabulary programmed to be able to talk about what happened.
We know that the families of our students struggle and want information about what happened today because many of our students CAN’T tell them when they get home. Similarly, as educators, we want to know what our students do at home so we can talk about it at school with adults and especially with peers. Let’s face it: much of our own communication daily consists of telling people about something that happened.
So What Can We Do About It?
Obviously there is a lot that goes into the type of narrative language that is needed to tell someone about an event or experience. I can’t possibly tell you all the steps to get from nonverbal and not responding to the question to being able to tell you all about a trip over vacation. But I can give you some tips of how you can structure your instruction of this incredibly important communication skill.
Don’t start with asking Sarah to tell you about her trip to Disney World. It’s just too much… too much time, too much information, too much emotion. Instead, start small by asking her what she had for lunch today (20 minutes after she finished eating it). Practice the vocabulary during the event to make sure it’s fresh and then ask about it shortly after.
Don’t start with feelings… start with facts. Our kids are better with facts. Good starter questions might be:
- What did you eat for lunch?
- Who were you playing with at recess?
- What games did you play with your friend?
- Who did you sit next to on the bus?
Start with Directed Questions
Make sure that you are starting with directed questions, too. So, not “How was your bus ride?” but “Who sat next to you on the bus?” More specific questions are more likely to get a response. As kids get older and their communication improves, also think about using questions that require a specific answer other than “Oay” or “Fine.” “Who did you sit next to on the field trip?” is going to get an answer you can build more conversation on. “How was the field trip?” to which the student says, “fine” makes it hard to talk more about it.
Program Chats Into the Day
Set up specific times that are natural opportunities to talk about something that happened. Two times that naturally come to mind are the beginning and the end of the day. I like to have a morning meeting at the start of the day and afternoon meeting before dismissal because it’s a great opportunity to talk about the events of the day as well as practice key skills like calendar.
At morning meeting, have each student communicate one thing he did at home (more on how to support that in a bit). Then at afternoon meeting, have them tell you one thing they did (or liked) during the school day. For more advanced students, the end of the day is a great day to review behavior systems and talk about behavior during the day (but only for students who can already relate events).
Another time to work on this type of communication is during journaling (for preschool we called them daybooks). This might take place at the beginning of the day or really at any time. Having students have structured ways to write about their day can help them relate it in verbal communication as well.
Use Visual Supports
Having chats set up ahead of time will allow you to make sure you regularly have access to any communication supports like communication boards or devices or just visual cues. There are essentially three types of supports you will need for this type of communication.
- Communication boards/devices programmed with the vocabulary
- Pictures to cue language and vocabulary — you can even have them use them to sequence events. This can include graphic organizers to sequence events or plan out what they want to say
- Information about the event the student is trying to talk about.
Obviously we need to have communication supports for our students to expressively talk about an event. If you do community-based instruction or go on a field trip, make sure to teach the vocabulary involved in that activity. Then make sure the vocabulary is available to them in either a field trip communication board, in their PECS or communication book, or programmed into their device. If you have a number of AAC users in the classroom, consider switches at morning meeting that you can program with the statements they might want to say and give them a choice of which to talk about.
In addition to the expressive supports, many of our students will need cues to remind them what to talk about. This can take a variety of forms.
For some students, it might be picture symbols from the schedule. One of the great things I love about morning and afternoon meetings is that they are times for us to review the schedule and what we did today. Not only is this good modeling of this type of communication by the teacher, but it also means the students are cued by the pictures from the schedule itself. The pictures are readily available and you can “prime the pump” of language by reviewing the schedule and then asking about something that happened today.
For others, photos of an event might be helpful. I love scrapbooking with students for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is because while putting the pictures into a scrapbook, you can write and talk about the events that happened with natural picture cues to guide the conversation. It’s a great time to have students work on journaling the events that went on in the pictures. And finally, the students just love to go back and look at them, so they become a great type of leisure reading that is age appropriate for all ages.
Finally it’s really hard to get communication going about an event if you weren’t there. That’s the struggle many of our parents feel when their kids come home from school. It’s also the struggle we all face every morning when we ask what they did last night. It’s hard to support communication (or prompt for it) if you don’t know what they are trying to communicate about.
Consequently, home-school communication is really important for both sides to support this type of conversation. However, neither teachers nor parents have unlimited free time to write about everything that happens when the student is with them. I really like these home notes as a way to send information back and forth.
- They are quick to fill out with specific common information and you can always add information about the art project today or what they did at music.
- They have a return form so that the school is sending home information about school and we are asking families to send information back about what happened at home.
- You can send them by email if you don’t have ready access to print / copies
- They have symbols on them that can match our schedules that we can use to cue information about the day
You can click on the picture to locate the homenotes in my store in three sets for different ages.
Until next time,
From running Autism Classroom Resources, to creating teacher resources on Teachers Pay Teachers, my driving goal has always been about bringing special educators together and helping them serve their students in the best ways they can. With a doctorate in psychology and as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, I have spent the last 25 years working with a wide variety of special education programs as a behavior specialist, an administrator, university faculty, and primarily as a trainer and consultant. Connect with me on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.