Monday, January 9, 2017

Helpful Tips for Teaching a Language Group for Students with Severe Communication Challenges

Here in North Carolina, no school has been happening for several days.  We had snow, and when that happens, we become shut in---no school, no shopping, no driving.  The power has stayed on, so I'm happy to blog, check Facebook, work on school work and babysit our granddaughter.  Lovely!

  In spite of our school vacation, I wanted share an important part of my job today.  For the past 24 years, I have worked in our self-contained classrooms and taught weekly language groups, many times co-treating with our occupational therapist.  Some years have been easier than others, but I have felt committed to these groups.  I often work with the children from the group at other times during the week for individual or small group services, but the language group has remained a permanent fixture.
     This group is important so the teachers and assistants can see what I do with the students.  I model the use of communication systems, show staff my interactive books, show how to reduce language input a little to elicit more language output, and demonstrate pragmatic functions of language.  We have fun with crafts, games and simple recipes.

Over the years, I've developed a little repertoire of helpful tips that anyone doing such a group should think about.  Keep in mind that my students are either nonverbal or emerging communicators in an elementary school setting.

1. The adults running a group need to look about five times as enthusiastic as they may feel.  Smile, look like you are having fun, read with expression.  This is often hard to do if you are dashing in from a previous school or session.  Why is enthusiasm important? You are the 'feelings model'!  You want the students to want to be at the table, and kids mirror your expressions and feelings. You want the student to know that you like being there, and then they will like the group too.

2. The more linguistically challenged students must have access to some type of communication system.
 Examples are picture exchange, a communication notebook, a core board, a simple voice output device......if they don't have verbal skills, make sure you give them tools.  Ideally it would be the same system they use throughout the day (which is not the same for every student). You may need to make a few boards for very specific activities. That shouldn't happen too often.
Dreidel game vocabulary
    I have just been awarded a grant for a group PODD for each classroom, and this will be perfect for a language group. The PODD will stay in the room, so the teacher will watch me use it with the kids, and then she'll also use it in subsequent lessons.  Prior to getting the PODD, I've always made sure that visual displays are provided with books, crafts, and games.  Students have their core boards and notebooks.

3. Even during the group, the adults need to use verbal modeling or aided language stimulation.  My students simply don't know what to say.  The adults (could be an assistant or teacher or SLP) need to show them.

4. Keep sidebar conversations to a minimum.  Unfortunately, when several adults sit at a group with a group of low verbal children, conversation begins or comments about totally unrelated topics crop up. Weather, retirement, weddings, hated administration policies.....words fly over the students' heads. I've been guilty, but these sidebars don't help. An SLP in charge of the group needs to redirect adult conversation to the lesson.

5. Schedule---I try to present a visual schedule to the students of  what we are doing.  Usually I draw it on a small whiteboard.  Another option is to use photos or icons with velcro.  Keep your routine similar each week.  A predictable routine really helps with behavior management, student anxiety, and building on language/social skills.

6. Goals--The goals are centered on students' IEP goals, but with a group, it's difficult to work on very many.  My priorities are pragmatics (engagement), literacy and language, and simple concepts. The last few years, we have been enticing the students to the group with music (often a YouTube video), then use an interactive book where they take turns reading the page, adding icons, and answering questions. If an OT is working with me, we then have the students complete a related craft.  If there is no OT, we either play a game, or complete an activity where students need to gain attention and request needed materials to complete a simple worksheet or coloring activity.

7. Pace yourself---For each 30 minute group, there needs to be three to four different activities.  Music, interactive books, hands-on activity, game---attention can wane; use all the senses!

8. Share the wealth--I leave my materials in the classroom, and share all of my interactive materials with the teachers.  Although I sell items on Teachers Pay Teachers, anything I create is provided to staff I work with.  They are grateful, and sometimes have requests for a unit or a new item.  Sometimes, I laminate books for the teachers or send a book home with the students.  It's all good.

9. Don't be discouraged--During my groups, kids may scream, accidents happen, things get spilled. What I have seen is that students learn the routine, you learn them, and over the course of the school year, magic happens.    I love the kids, love the groups, and enjoy the teachers.  I especially love our current and past occupational therapists who have added so much love and expertise.

So I'm actually writing this for SLP who is taking my place starting February 1, and am hoping she won't freak out at the prospect of teaching these language groups!!!!  Yes, a wonderful person has been hired, and I'm counting down to retiring from this NC school system, which has had its awesome moments and flawed moments. I've seen it all from an SLP perspective, from a parent perspective and from a mentor perspective.  I'm not leaving Chapel Hill and I'm still a mentor, so I'll still be acutely aware.

 I will dearly miss my little tender mercies, the sweet children who have been such a part of my life at my school, and especially my more challenged kids (and I'm not religious except that working with these kids can draw it out of anyone with a heart).  I know I'll have new opportunities (since my school is a mere speck in a world of needy children), but tears flow.