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  • Writer's pictureJordyn Peterson

Modeling AAC to Build Effective Communicators

Now that you’ve learned about AAC; what it means, some of the different types, who can help decide which type may be best for a child. How can we apply what we’ve learned to our children? (if you haven’t learned about it - pause - first read out introductory post “what is AAC” here)

In many years of working with children who utilize AAC, I’ve seen different strategies when it comes to teaching children how to use it. Some common ideas about teaching AAC that we do not recommend utilizing include hand over hand communication - which is exactly what it sounds like. A communication partner putting their hand over a child's hand and leading them to the device to select a specific word. Another thought is to place the device in front of the child and let them figure it out.

Research and experience show that partner augmented input or “modeling”, is the best way to teach a child how to use their device for communication.

“Modeling” refers to a communication partner (i.e. a therapist, parent, peer) using the AAC themself by pointing to the symbols while also verbally speaking the words at the same time. This aided language stimulation can be done during all kinds of activities; eating, playing, bathing, riding in a car, shopping, etc. Any time a person uses verbal language, modeling on an AAC device can be used as well.

Why should we model? What is the significance? I like to think that learning an AAC device is like learning a new language. If someone put a board in front of you with a bunch of words and pictures in Portuguese, and you are not a person who knows Portuguese, it would be very difficult to immediately use only this tool to communicate with someone in Brazil. The same goes for our early language learners. If you place an iPad in front of them with foreign words and pictures, they will not immediately use it to communicate. Don’t be discouraged. This is where building connection prior to communication comes in. We take activities we do together or the interest of the child and we GET the chance to model these phrases with repetition to teach meaning/function.

One of the most important pieces of modeling is that it should be a team approach.

Certainly, the speech therapist working with a child using AAC will be modeling during their therapy sessions. However, other members of this child’s life also should take the opportunity to model in other activities and important moments in their life. Some ideas of who to reach out to and include are as follows:

“By 18 months babies have heard 4,380 hours of spoken language and we don't expect them to be fluent speakers YET. If AAC learners only see symbols modeled for communication twice weekly for 20-30 minutes, it will take 84 years for them to have the same exposure to aided language as an 18 month old has to spoken language”

- Jane Korsten

Another valuable take away that I personally get from this quote is that we don’t expect babies, or typically language learners, to be fluent speakers by 18 months, even though we’ve provided them with many hours of verbal language. The same goes for our AAC learners. We can’t expect them to learn AAC for a couple hours and use it fluently. We may model for weeks or months, and the child may not produce anything independently on their device. We just have to remember THAT’S OKAY! That progress occurs much deeper than just on the surface of what’s spoken. Keep modeling and giving them opportunities to learn this new “language” we’ve given them.

Our modeling attempts should be motivating for the child. A child who is scared of loud noises probably will not enjoy modeling attempts by a communication partner who is cleaning the house and using a vacuum. This does not equal a good learning opportunity for them. Let’s say that this same child loves breakfast food. It would be much more beneficial to spend breakfast time modeling and using language to talk about their favorite food, how yummy it is and to model choices.

Okay so we understand the importance of modeling, but how do we model?

I like to use an acronym “S’MoRRES” to help me remember the main points of modeling. S'MoRRES is a mnemonic developed by Dr. Jill Senner and Matthew Baud to describe a strategy for building partner interaction skills.

S: slow rate- make sure you are verbalizing and pointing to the pictures with a slower than normal rate so the child can make connections as you go

Mo: model- the whole point of this article! You can model while using “self talk” (or talking while you’re doing something) or “parallel talk” (talking while the child is completing an activity)

R: respect and reflect- as a parent or caregiver, you’ve learned the way that your child communicates best. If your child primarily points, and points to something they want, we want to respect that form of communication, but reflect it back on their AAC device to give them another way they can communicate that. For example: “I see you want Goldfish, we can say “want Goldfish” here on our talker too!” Then give them the Goldfish.

R: repeat- children learn best with repetition! Feel free to repeat the same word multiple times during modeling. It’s never too much.

E: expand- we always want to expand our child’s communication by 1 or 2 words. Let’s say your child is using one word utterances: “more”. You can show them on their device “more please” or “want more” or “more drink” to give them additional vocabulary words

S: stop- this may be the one we forget most often. Make sure at the end of a few modeling opportunities, we stop for about 10 seconds to give the child the chance to respond to our modeling attempt. They may surprise us by completely imitating everything we’ve said!

So we’ve covered a lot about modeling with this article and we want to encourage you to comment with any questions you may have. This is something that will require you to extend grace to yourself as you’re learning. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s therapist for further information on this and continue to follow along with our AAC series.

The most important takeaway is to make a plan to model during your daily routines and child’s interest and don’t expect yourself to be perfect. You and your child are learning this system together. As they watch you learn to navigate the system - they will be encouraged to try it too!

Written By: Jordyn Peterson, MS CCC-SLP

Graphics: Kristin Weingart, MS CCC-SLP

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