In this seven part series around Special Educational Needs (SEN) teaching we will explore some tried and tested methods with a fun twist, from experience gained in my 15 years working in an amazing special needs school. There will be easy step-by-step guides, from PECs (Picture Exchange Communication System) to TacPac, everything you may need whether you are just starting out in the world of SEN or are a seasoned professional looking for some new ideas. Stay tuned for further posts or check out our Teacher Stress blog series whilst you wait.

Step 1: Learning How to Communicate

  • This begins with the student seeing the the desired object. The desired object should be something that really motivates the student – make it fun, it could be their favourite toy or food. This stage is about the student learning that you can be useful to them!!!

  • Then he or she will pick up the picture of the object and turn to the communication partner. Finally, he or she will hand the picture to their partner.

  • Try and work in as many opportunities as you can in the day. If the student wants fruit for example, only give them a small piece at time so you can get as many exchanges as possible. Focus on only one picture at a time.

  • Two trainers will be needed to demonstrate and teach initiation of communication. One to receive the picture and one to prompt the exchange.

Step 2: Adding Distance and Persistence

  • This can only be moved onto when step one is has fully been ingrained – this could take a long time but it is important to persist as learning new concepts can take time.

  • Make sure you have the communication book set up and again only focus on one picture at a time.

  • The student should go to their book and pull off the picture of the desired item. Then, they should go to the partner and hand them the picture.

  • At this stage we want to widen the group of people the student can ask so try introducing other staff members for the student to exchange with.

  • The aim is for the student to begin spontaneously requesting the desired item throughout the day.

Step 3: Picture Discrimination

  • The student first needs to go to a communication book and select the picture of the desired item from a few different pictures. Then, they should go to the communication partner and give them the picture.

  • Move the pictures around in the book each time until discrimination is mastered. Have a mix of highly preferred pictures and non-preferred pictures. This is a great way to learn what the student is really motivated by and what they are not. I once used a sock picture as an non-preferred item, thinking ‘wow this will be so boring to them’ but then when the student exchanged for the sock they were overjoyed – waving the sock and having the best time – that soon became the preferred item!

  • Provide vocal feedback on whether they touch the right picture or not.

Step 4: Sentence Structure

  • This step is where I used to see the clearest progress. It is where we start linking words and building sentences. Using an ‘I want’ reinforces that it is the child asking for something.

  • The student should go to the book, pick up a picture of “I want,” put it on a sentence strip, pick up a picture of what is wanted, put it on the sentence strip, remove the strip from the communication board, and then go to give the strip to the communication partner.

Step 5: Responding to “What do you want?”

  • This is where the student should be able to request a variety of items when responding to “What do you want?” It is important that we scaffold the picture exchange verbally. This can really encourage verbal language.

  • Leave time for the student to respond – this may take a little while for them to process your questions and actually make a decision – try and work in as many of these opportunities each day as you can

Step 6: Commenting

  • This is when the student should be able to answer, “What do you want?” “What do you see?” “What do you have?” “What do you hear?” and “What is it?” This should be as spontaneous as possible. I would often take my students on a nature walk, with their communication books over their shoulder and ask these questions.

  • Use discrimination training for discrimination of different sentence-starter icons.

Top tips for success

  • Have a box of motivating items for each child, clearly labelled so other staff members can communicate with the student too.

  • Ensure the student’s communication book is accessible and all pictures are there at the start of each day

  • Have spare pictures – the amount that just disappear is unreal!

  • Myself and my team had little aprons that we could store spare pictures and items in to ensure those opportunities for communication were always available.

  • Be prepared to go back a step – that is ok. It is not failure it just means the previous step needed some more time.

  • Do not give up. When it feels like it will never work, you have bleeding fingers from laminating, cutting and velcroing pictures and the items are being snatched and flung in your face, just remember this is a process and when you succeed you will give that student a lifeline to life – communication.