Imagine being unable to express yourself verbally, forced to rely on others’ guesswork and goodwill to satisfy your every need, from bathroom breaks to establishing which TV show you’d like to watch. Now imagine that you are a child.
Non-verbal learners are common in today’s schools, and it’s the job of education assistants like those who graduate from Cap’s 18-month Education Assistant (EA) certificate program to help such children express their needs, connect with others and learn about the world.
Barbara Cotter is an instructor in Cap’s EA program (and a registered speech language pathologist) teaching a course called Supporting Students with Technology and AAC Systems (SEA 106). The tools she uses include high-tech and low-tech devices, various apps and specific technological programs, but it’s the “communication boards” that, for her students, seem to hammer home the crucial needs of non-verbal learners.
These children may have autism, hearing impairment, developmental disabilities or may be recovering from brain injuries.
The boards feature cells, or squares, containing “picture symbols” that the child can point to in order to express him- or herself.
“There would be a cell that says ‘I’ and one that says ‘want’ and then an assortment of things that the child might want,” Barbara explains. “There are also conversation boards so nonverbal students can engage with other students and say, for example, ‘I like that. What do you think?’”
The education assistant tailors each board to each child. The challenge lies in identifying the “salient core vocabulary” for that child, says Barbara. “What is it that that student is really trying to tell us, and how do we develop ways so that students can tell us throughout the day what they want and what they need, and how can we honour their needs? For each of us, what’s important to us is unique. So we’re finding that uniqueness for all children.”
Creating the appropriate communication board can be a long process, but it’s clear when you’ve got it right by the child’s happiness.
In Barbara’s class at Cap, she shows her students examples of communication boards and examples of kids using the boards, then has them create their own board, using technology. “I have the students create a board for a snack, and playing a game. And then I put them in a room, I tell them that they are not allowed to speak, and that they have to use the board that they made, and they play the game, and they have their snack, and then they reflect on what they would change.”
This is not a program for impatient people. “Education assistants need to have a real love of children, a real passion for education, and an ability to put yourself in that student’s shoes, so to speak, and try to see things from their perspective and not from yours,” says Barbara. “They must be able to appreciate that all behaviour is communication and try to look at it through that lens. I’ve found that the students in the program really have that skill.”
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