Amazing Communication Growth in Just Nine Months For Students with Moderate Cognitive Delays!

Amazing Communication Growth in Just Nine Months For Students with Moderate Cognitive Delays!

Our team started this unique approach to a communication model for elementary age students with moderate cognitive delays approximately a year and a half ago. We placed an SLP exclusively with our three life skills classrooms for a full day each week in each classroom. We wanted to develop a program where communication was a cornerstone where students would be given the opportunity to learn and use their communication skills throughout their day everyday.

This was definitely not your typical 20 minutes a week, 2X week teaching model!!!

As an SLP in my early career, it was so frustrating to give students assistive technology just to see it sit on the shelf when I returned the following week to see how things were going. I also felt defeated when I would see teachers doing PECS brilliantly during snack time, but then the rest of the day, there were little to no explicit expectations or opportunities for students to communicate in a truly functional way.

Last year before one of my speaking engagements, I was asked to observe a student in a life skills program in another state. For the hour and a half that I was there, this child said nothing. He had an assistant with him who carried around visual supports in a notebook, but the notebook was never presented to this young student. It was hard for me to see how silent he had to be during that hour and a half and it made me wonder how much more of his day was similar. There were so many missed opportunities for this child who was already behind in his communication skills. I had the opportunity to observe this student at home with his family and I was shocked to see him communicating some of his basic needs because his mother had that expectation as soon as he walked in the door. That, of course, demonstrated that he wanted to communicate and was capable of communicating his wants and needs but he just was not given the same opportunities in his school environment.

Unfortunately in my experience as an SLP, this has not been an unusual scenario.  Many of my SLP colleagues experienced the same things and we would often express our frustration that staff was theoretically putting tape on the mouths of students. An assistant would leave the voice output device back in the room when the kids would go to lunch. Why? Don’t students talk at lunch? A teacher would not have the PECS book with the child during specials. Why? Aren’t things said by students during PE or library? The core vocabulary board was not used during circle time to expand students’ expression. Why? Isn’t that the perfect time to teach students how to ask and answer questions or make use of their social skills?

Then in January of 2016, Erin Diefendorf, our SLP, was given free reign to develop a program that every SLP would ideally LOVE to have. We wanted her to find a way to coach through example and practice how staff could facilitate communication that would happen all day every day.   And that is exactly what she did.

Take a look at some more specifics and our results!!!!

Other results that I didn’t share in the video were as equally amazing. You may remember the Visual Health Notebook that I have shared with you that our autism team put together for every nurse in our district. Last April, I popped into the nurse’s office and asked her how the Health Notebook was working for our life skills students. Her response astounded me.   She said, “Actually the life skills students don’t need the notebook” and when I asked why, she said, “because they talk to me verbally with signs or by using their voice output devices!” 


I could not believe what I was hearing!!! Could this new outside the box programming for our non- verbal/ low verbal students be working this well? As you can see from the video and our results, the answer is a resounding YES!!!

Take note: This was very much a team effort. The classroom teachers, therapists, assistants, lunch ladies, specials teachers etc were all on board to support this. The SLP cannot do this alone! 

Now before you start with the Yes, buts…..I get it that SLPs have huge case loads and most cannot be assigned to a classroom for a whole day. BUT what if for a period of time the SLP could instruct, with an “I’ll show you and the you show me” coaching style for communication opportunities during each part of the students’ day. Then the SLP could use therapy time to not only work with students so that the staff could see how it’s done, but then the SLP would guide the staff into what would come next in the process.

I encourage you to think outside the box. Share our results with your staff and see how you might change your service delivery model for this population.

If you ask the parents of these students what they want most from the school, in my experience the majority say two things: Self-help and Communication.   We tend to do well with teaching our students self -help skills, so now how about that Communication!

Someone once said that if you really want to make a change, you’ll find a way and if you don’t you’ll find an excuse. I’m hoping that today’s video will inspire you to find a way to think differently about how you can make a real and significant difference in the communication skills of young children with disabilities.

I’d love to hear your ideas, your questions, your feedback. Leave a comment!

You take care and I’ll see you next time!


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