Special Needs Classroom: Communication Needs

You should have been with me about 20 years ago walking along the narrow cobble-stoned paths of Oia, Greece.  Somehow I had gotten myself turned around and needed directions back to the ferry landing in order to return to Crete.  I probably looked very strange to those that I stopped to ask directions.  Though I was doing my best to communicate in the only way that I new how, I could tell by the look on their faces that they had no clue what I was asking.  It was a frustrating experience for me and I’m sure that it was for them too.

Some children with special needs have a very similar communication experiences.  Children communicate.  It doesn’t matter what their diagnosis is, rest assured that every child communicates!  Even though every child communicates, that does not mean that they communicate in the same way.  Some kids may do it verbally, others through sign language or pictures, and there are those who communicate through their facial expressions and body language.  Kids even communicate through their behaviors.

In this blog post you’ll pick up a tool that you can use to identify the communication needs of every child in your classroom so that you can begin to plan how best to meet their communication needs.

So lets get started.  As a special needs ministry volunteer, if you want a specific way to increase the potential for your kids to communicate, learn, and decrease potential challenging behaviors you’ll need to integrate this tool as part of what you use to create a special needs friendly classroom.

One of the most important things that you can do to enhance your learners’ abilities to communicate is to determine their communication needs.  I use a Communication Needs Matrix to write down the name of all of our kiddos (and adults!) and the type of communication support that is needed for them in our classroom.

Click on this link to open and download the Communication Needs Matrix Sample so that you can use it to follow along with the rest of this article.

The first column in the Communication Needs Matrix is where you’ll place the names of all of your learners with special needs.  Whether you have one learner or 30 learners, self-contained special needs classroom or inclusive classrooms, you’ll want to list the names of all your learners on this document.  It helps to keep all of the communication needs of your learners in one place.

You’ll notice that there are seven learners identified in our sample matrix.  In looking at this matrix, you’ll notice that the only two learners that are not in need of some type of alternative communication support are Erika and Rose.  It appears that they are both verbal.  It also seems that they can navigate their classrooms without the use of alternative forms of communication supports.

Hannah and Maleek require a few more intensive communications supports.  In addition to sign language, Hannah also uses an augmentative communication (augcom) device and identical pictures to communicate.  Maleek also uses an augcom device and identical pictures.  What I mean by “identical pictures” is that the picture of an item is identical to the actual item itself.  In other words, if the picture is a picture of a cd player it is the exact cd player that is being used in the classroom (not a similar cd player).

It appears that Grace only uses or requires abstract pictures for support with her communicatiion.  Abstract pictures are nonspecific or nonidentical to the objects they represent.  Using my example in the above paragraph, an abstract picture of a cd player would be a similar cd player not the exact cd player.

The reason that I distinguish between identical pictures and abstract pictures is tied into child development.  When children are just beginning to understand that pictures represent actual real-world objects or items they initially make that connection easier with picture that are identical to the real-world objects/items they represent.  The next step, developmentally, is that children begin to understand photos that are nonidentical (abstract) to the real-world objects/items they represent.  For example, a picture of the shoe that a child actually wears would be understood before a picture of a show that the child has never seen before.

Elizabeth, as you can tell from the matrix, needs both identical pictures and objects in order to communicate.  Let me explain the use of objects.  Developmentally, children understand the real-world they live in before they begin to develop the understanding that pictures represent objects/items in their real-world.  They “get” tangible objects that they can touch and feel but have yet to understand that pictures represent tangible objects.  Kids/adults with special needs at this level communicate better using objects rather than pictures.

Communication or a lack of it, affects everything in your classroom.  Therefore, identifying the communication needs of your learners is a key component of a best-practice special needs ministry.  Special needs volunteers can support learners by seeking to understand all the ways in which their learners communicate and helping them to build on and enhance the strategies they already employ successfully.  The Communication Needs Matrix is a beneficial tool to use to help you take the first step towards supporting your children and/or adults in your classrooms.

If you missed the earlier blog post on evaluating the special needs classroom you can view it here.  Or view the post on organizing the physical environment of a special needs classroom by clicking on this link.

Make sure that you either subscribe to our blog or “like” us on our Special Friends Ministry facebook page in order to be notified when our next article is published!  Michael Woods, M.A. BCaBA CPI

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About Michael Woods

Christ-follower, husband, chocoholic, and peanut-butter lover! I'm a father to triplet boys...each on the autism spectrum.

View all posts by Michael Woods


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