Strategy of the Month: Engaging the Learner

September 8, 2014 by - 2 Comments

Strategy of the Month: Engaging the Learner
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Summer is over in our part of the world and that means we get the opportunity to work with a whole new crop of students and clients. There is so much for beginning clinicians to know about providing AAC services that it is intimidating at best and overwhelming in most cases. In previous posts we’ve written about expectations, goal-setting, intervention strategies, therapy activities, reinforcement, feedback, and the like. This month, we’ll focus on a construct that permeates everything: engagement

We all know what it looks and feels like when a client is engaged, but how do we make that happen? Here are some thoughts.

1. Start by presuming that your client is a learner on his/her way to developing competence. Good intervention, consistent language models, the right tools, and plenty of practice will move them along the journey toward improved communication. It’s important that, as clinicians, we truly believe that. Yes, your clients may be impaired, perhaps significantly so, but they will certainly know if you don’t believe in their abilities. Presume potential.

2. Pick goals that make a difference. The things we choose to work on for our clients should lead to a better quality of life for our clients.

3. Choose therapy activities and materials that are age appropriate. A teenager whose expressive language level is at the 1-2 word stage is still a teenager.

4. Be aware of the level of difficulty in what you are asking the client to do. For most of our AAC clients, communication is hard work. What seems relatively easy, may, in fact, require a good deal of effort to:

  • Divert their attention away from their own thoughts and actions and attend to what you are saying
  • Process the the language you are using. You can make this easier by reducing the length and complexity of your utterance, if that is appropriate for your client, and by using aided language input.
  • Organize and construct a response
  • Execute that response
  • Monitor the feedback

5. Make sure that the payoff for doing what you ask is sufficient for the level of effort your client is putting forth. Asking Janie to use two switch scanning to put together a short sentence? Better be sure that the outcome for doing that is worth her while.

6. Use your knowledge of the learner to select activities and materials that fit with their interests.

7. For some learners, it’s quite important to align with their values. Janie is a high school student and is very keen to make friends and be popular. When we do vocabulary activities with her, we try to use cool technologies so that the product of the activity is something age appropriate and interesting. No worksheets for Janie. Instead we’ll make digital collages, talking avatars, infographics, and the like. Janie’s more engaged because these are things that make her look great in the eyes of her peers.

Engaging the learners can take a bit of extra work, but the returns in learning and enjoyment are worth it for both the student and the clinician. What strategies do you use to engage your clients? We’d love to hear about them.

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This post was written by Carole Zangari


  • Jenny Tackett says:

    I love your suggestions and know them well after working for many years with children with autism.
    I’ve recently met a 6 year old, first time in school, with no language. Tricky one for motivators even mom says he doesn’t respond to much. I always take this with a grain of salt because everyone likes something.
    What do you do when you are at a loss for motivators in the beginning?

    For my preschoolers, I always love a bag of “secrets”….toys they’ve never seen. It works great for initiating.
    Thank you for such a helpful site!

    • Avatar photo Carole Zangari says:

      Hi Jenny-thanks for your comment and your kind words. I’ve had a few kiddos like that myself and know how challenging it can be. Generally, I do some some of reinforcer preference testing (usually informally). If you need more info on that, let me know and I will dig up some resources for you. One other thought: Many times, I find that kids like this are not interested in tangibles (toys, food) as much as they are by fun, engaging people. I had one little fellow who could have a blast with playing with the simplest things – a piece of cloth, a set of bells – as long as the interaction partner was willing to ham it up and be silly. So for him, the choices were verbs (throw [cloth], listen [bells]) or descriptors (soft, quiet, noisy) rather than object labels. Does that make sense?

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