Back-to-school season is here! There are many benefits to educating children with complex communication needs in an inclusive environment. Some people think that creating inclusive learning environments and experiences for those with complex communication needs is time-consuming and costly, but the reality is that it is simple and cheap in terms of time and money.
What is inclusion?
Inclusion is about identifying and removing barriers so that everyone can participate to the best of their ability (Eredics, 2018). This is authentic inclusion.
Inclusion is a mindset, in addition to a situation. Inclusion is intermixing those with complex communication needs with their typically developing peers. It is amplifying and valuing all voices, perspectives, thoughts, and ideas, no matter how they are expressed. Every learner learns differently and has diverse ways of communicating, and we must acknowledge and accept such differences and approach situations with an open and creative mindset so that we can achieve an environment that is authentically inclusive.
When inclusion is present, it is difficult to distinguish those who have complex communication needs and those who don't as they are not only intermixed in the same physical space, but they are also viewed and treated equally. Inclusion is the gold standard out of the four models of inclusion, exclusion, segregation, and integration.
Why should I implement inclusion in my classroom?
Inclusion has many benefits for ALL learners, including those with and those without complex communication needs. Such benefits include:
- provide all learners with an authentic sense of belonging (New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education, 2023);
- enhance learner progress in reading and math (Cole et al., 2004);
- learners with complex communication needs are ten times more likely to receive effective literacy instruction in inclusive learning environments than in segregated, integrated, and exclusive learning environments (Ruppar et al., 2018);
- increase academic achievement, classroom participation, and assignment completion (Cushing & Kennedy, 1997).
Are you thinking, "I want to make my classroom environment more inclusive for learners who have AAC needs or teachers are asking me to support inclusion in their classrooms, but I'm so overwhelmed that I don't even know where and how to start!"?
There is no need to be overwhelmed because inclusion is achieved by taking a few simple steps and implementing a few simple philosophies or strategies to existing teaching methods.
Speak AAC to teach AAC - Let all learners use an AAC device. This builds a genuine understanding of AAC and helps peers be better listeners. It also reinforces language growth for all students.
- If peers have opportunities to use AAC in an engaging manner, they will develop a deeper, more authentic understanding of AAC and be better listeners, learners, and communication partners because they know what it is like to use AAC. Make it fun by creating authentic hands-on learning experiences and opportunities.
Integrate AAC into existing classroom routines – Use AAC during classroom activities.
- Incorporate AAC into academic activities, such as writing and shared reading to develop the learner’s language skills and normalize AAC use in the classroom.
Explicitly address communication diversity - Kids are very observant and curious about why their peers communicate differently than they do.
- Educators must address these questions so that they understand that just because their peers may have AAC needs, they are no different from them and they just communicate differently. It is also critical that learners are effective communication partners with their peers who use AAC. That means that learners must genuinely listen to each other and as educators, we must facilitate this between learners to ensure that all learners acknowledge, respect, and listen to each other.
- Because communicating with AAC takes more time than communicating via spoken speech, communication partners, such as peers, must be patient and provide wait time to those who use AAC so that they can compose utterances and actively participate in classroom activities and interactions, which can be a challenge for peers. Educators should model wait times themselves when interacting with learners with complex communication needs in front of their peers so that they can learn by example.
- Genuine listening should also be discussed while talking about diversity of communication in explaining that just because people communicate in diverse ways that does not mean that peers ignore them and disregard what they say. Instead, they should provide opportunities, wait time, and express sincere interest in hearing and responding to what they have to say. This is a wonderful way to incorporate all learners into your efforts to facilitate authentically inclusive learning environments.
Promote peer support - Peer support is when peers learn alongside each other and both individuals experience authentic learning. It has proven to support both learners academically, including those with and those without complex communication needs, and thus can lay the foundation for authentic social relationships between those with and without complex communication needs.
- Learners support one another in their learning and shift the focus from the teacher doing most of the talking to the learners doing most of the talking as they interact with and support each other. Learners are more engaged in the curriculum content when they learn it alongside one another and talk about it with each other and, thus, they learn the content on a deeper and more authentic level.
- Peer support also provides communication and social opportunities for those with complex communication needs and their peers while keeping the focus on academics.
Use Descriptive Teaching - There is a limited amount of real estate to store vocabulary in AAC devices. Core words can be used to describe and discuss academic concepts and material instead of using content-specific vocabulary.
- Content, or fringe, vocabulary is typically not in AAC systems as it is not applicable beyond the lesson at hand and therefore it is not functional to teach and use such words in the classroom. The Descriptive Teaching Model breaks down content-specific vocabulary into frequently used core words which are already in AAC systems so that learners who use AAC can participate in the lesson, while learning robust vocabulary words that are generalizable and applicable to all subjects and areas of life, including those inside and outside of academia (Van Tatenhove, 2009).
- Descriptive teaching is not only more inclusive and practical for learners with AAC needs, but it also benefits their peers as it expands functional uses open-ended questions. This allows for many different answers using core words that are readily accessible in an AAC system and teaches generalization of vocabulary so that learners can functionally use that vocabulary across subjects and settings inside and outside of academics. Descriptive teaching is not only more inclusive and practical for learners with AAC needs, but it also benefits their peers as it expands their linguistic competence.
Inclusive learning environments and experiences not only benefit learners with complex communication needs, but it enhances the learning and growth of all learners. Creating inclusive learning environments and experiences begins with the belief that all learners can learn when given adequate opportunities and supports.
Transforming classrooms into inclusive spaces is a process full of learning moments and can be overwhelming, but it does not need to be. Start small by implementing one or two inclusive practices and gradually grow and build upon them throughout the school year.
Cole, C. M., Waldron, N., & Majd, M. (2004). Academic Progress of Students Across Inclusive and Traditional Settings. Mental Retardation, 42(2), 136–144. https://doi.org/10.1352/0047-6765(2004)42<136:aposai>2.0.co;2
Cushing, L. S., & Kennedy, C. H. (1997). ACADEMIC EFFECTS OF PROVIDING PEER SUPPORT IN GENERAL EDUCATION CLASSROOMS ON STUDENTS WITHOUT DISABILITIES. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 30(1), 139–151. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.1997.30-139
Eredics, N. (2018). Inclusion in Action: Practical Strategies to Modify Your Curriculum. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Moore, S., & Schnellert, L. (2016). One Without the Other: Stories of Unity Through Diversity and Inclusion (Vol. 1, Ser. 1). Portage & Main Press.
New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education. (2023). About Inclusive Education. New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education. https://www.njcie.org/about-inclusive-ed
Ruppar, A., Fisher, K. W., Olson, A. J., & Orlando, A.-M. (2018). Exposure to Literacy for Students Eligible for the Alternate Assessment. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 53(2), 192–208. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26495269
Van Tatenhove, G. M. (2009). Building Language Competence With Students Using AAC Devices: Six Challenges. Perspectives on Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 18(2), 38–47. https://doi.org/10.1044/aac18.2.38