Talking through the tough stuff- Using symbols to talk about emotions

About a year ago, I received a phone call from a lady with an interesting request.

This lady was a children’s counsellor, supporting children to talk through issues such as depression, bereavement and trauma.  She had been asked to work with a child who was non-verbal and naturally, she was a little bewildered- How could she attempt ‘talking therapy’ with a child who didn’t ‘talk’ in the traditional sense?!

And this is where I came in, armed with a toolkit of symbols and a Talking Mat (If you don’t know what a Talking Mat is you will by the end of this blog post…!). It was a fascinating morning, supporting this lady in an alternative version of ‘talking therapy’- AAC therapy in a different sense to what I am used to!

The whole experience got me thinking- Our children with disabilities, with ASC, with PMLD…They go through a lot, don’t they? On a daily basis they have become accustomed to dealing with issues such as pain, isolation, lack of privacy, having decisions made for them, being patronised or overlooked…

If I had to deal with these issues on a daily basis, I would feel pretty depressed, frustrated and maybe angry at times.

Yet do we equip our children to really talk through these issues? To actually discuss how daily life can be a challenge at times?

So in today’s blog, I’m going to think about a few ideas as to how we can encourage our children to be open, giving them the language to really tell us how they’re feeling.

  • Provide access to ‘emotion words’

One of the core words that someone who uses AAC should have access to is ‘help’.

However, when a child says “Help”, I think we often automatically gravitate towards physical needs, pulling out symbols for ‘hot’, ‘thirsty’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘tired’, etc.

But what if a child wants to express that they are sad, frustrated, bored, worried, scared…? Or equally if they want to express a more joyful emotion such as excitement, happiness or amazement?!

Like with any vocabulary, our children need to be exposed to these words and their corresponding symbols- They need to link the symbol to the emotion and as always, this is done through modelling. Whilst reading a story we can talk about how the character feels whilst using the symbols ( “They are scared of the bear!”), we can use symbols to talk about our own emotions (“I feel excited today!”) or we can comment on others around us, explaining their emotions using symbols (“Lucy is a bit sad today because she has lost her teddy”).

More importantly, we need to ensure that children who use AAC have access to a ‘feelings’ page within their communication book or device and encourage them to use it by asking them how they feel about things that are happening around them. This also shows that we value their emotions; that we are interested in listening to their thoughts and feelings.

  • Practice talking about emotions

I run a weekly communication group with 7 children who use alternative forms of communication. We start every session by talking about how we feel today. I’ll kick things off by saying I’m happy or tired (a common feeling on a Thursday morning…!) and then the children will use symbols to say how they feel.

But emotions can be integrated into many different activities and lessons. I particularly like to use sensory activities to practice talking about feelings. These are just a few ideas:

  • Playing a range of emotive songs (classical may be best for this activity) and asking the children how it makes them feel (scared, excited, happy, etc),
  • Using a feely bag or a magic potion (green jelly with lots of yucky things hidden inside like plastic spiders and eye-balls!)- ask the children how they feel before they put their hands in (worried, excited, disgusted, etc),
  • Sensory stories- As I mentioned before, talking about how a character feels in a story can be a useful way to discuss emotions…but sometimes this is a bit abstract, requiring the child to use inference, putting themselves in another’s shoes. A sensory story helps to bridge that gap as the child is more of an active participant, experiencing the same sensations that the character in a story might feel; a perfect time to practice talking about feelings! There are a few nice examples of sensory stories with accompanying switch activated powerpoints on this site: http://www.portlandcollege.org/curriculum/resources/
  • Talking Mats

I mentioned Talking Mats at the beginning of this blog as this is my ‘go to’ tool for finding out a child’s opinions, thoughts and feelings.

Basically a Talking Mat is an old car mat, used with a selection of laminated symbols with velcro on the back- it might not sound glamorous (unless you can get your hands on a sparkly, purple car-mat…) but it’s simple and effective!

The idea is that you have a top line of symbols placed on the mat e.g. ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘not sure’ . The child is then given a variety of symbols representing activities or aspects of their daily life and they can sort the symbols under the heading that it applies to e.g. ‘playing with friends’ may make the child feel happy, whilst ‘being alone’ may make the child feel sad.

You begin to build up a picture, almost a graph on the mat, which helps you to see a child’s feelings at a glance. I normally take a photo of the end result, print it, date it and then when I re-do the activity at a later date, see how (or if) things have changed.

Some specific occasions when Talking Mats might come in handy?! Here are just a few examples…

Talking about transitions if the child is moving class or even school, it’s a helpful way to gauge their feelings and then understand how best to support them with the issues that they identify as being difficult.

Getting to the bottom of a challenging behaviour– You know there is a trigger but you’re not sure what. Finding out the child’s thoughts and feelings on daily activities may help you uncover the issue together.

Making one page profiles or communication passports– It’s important to have the child’s input when making these documents. Only the child can provide accurate information on what they like or don’t like to talk about. Using a Talking Mat is a fun and informative way to do this.

These are just a few suggestions off the top of my head! If you want to know more about Talking Mats, have a look at their website which provides more information on the approach and also training dates: http://www.talkingmats.com/

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Once our children with communication difficulties have access to the appropriate vocabulary and have opportunities to talk about emotions, there is one more important factor to remember- We need to create an environment in which the child feels safe to chat about how they feel.  Pausing, taking time to consider their opinions, responding with warmth and without judgement….Just generally being approachable!

Talking about tough stuff is tough! But we can meet our children with communication difficulties half way, providing them with the right tools within the right environment. It might still be tricky but at least as parents, teachers and health professionals, we can help to make it a little easier!

 

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Communication on tour!

When I started working as a Speech and Language Therapist, I was based in a clinic- One small room, with one large, bright window. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining- some Speech Therapists don’t even have a window…!

Even on wet, drizzly days (which was the norm, as I was working in Northern Ireland!), I used to glance out the window between appointments and think, “That’s where all the proper communication is happening- beyond that window!”

When I started working in schools, I could stretch my legs a bit more- joining students in the occasional cookery lesson, making use of the sensory room, sometimes even venturing outside with the children into the playground…it felt like a little taste of freedom!

So when some of my forward-thinking colleagues invited me to join them on trips beyond the confines of the school gate to support some of our students using alternative forms of communication, it didn’t take me long to grab my coat and a selection of core symbols!

This has now become a bit of a regular part of my job; something I refer to as ‘Communication in the Community’. Catchy, right?!

I see it as having 3 main functions:

  1. Real life communication experience- Many of the students who I work with are quite confident using their alternative forms of communication in the school environment. They don’t feel different or that they ‘stand out’ – In their class they have plenty of other friends using communication books, iPads, switches or eye-gaze devices to communicate.

Similarly, in their home-environment, they have support from their family who understand their communication system.

Once we venture out beyond the safe zones of school and home, there is the daunting prospect of communicating with people who have never interacted with anyone who  uses something other than their voice to communicate. This can make some of our children a little nervous, a little withdrawn or sometimes frustrated. By easing them in to the idea of communicating beyond their comfort zone, with a little bit of extra support, we can help to bridge that gap and boost their confidence.

  1. Motivation!! The best communication happens when our students are highly motivated! And let’s face it, sometimes it’s difficult to think of new, innovative ways to encourage our children to initiate communication, carry on a conversation, ask a question or make a comment.

But once you take them to a popular bargain store (naming no names…!), and they have a few pounds to spend, watch that student become incredibly motivated to let you know what they want! Or maybe it’s a trip to a cafe and they see a delicious chocolate fudge cake perched temptingly on the counter…Or perhaps it’s the local Pet Shop and you know they desperately want to pet that Guinea Pig..!

Every student is enthused by something different but once you find that motivation, those communication targets seem well within reach!

  1. Educating others- This ties in with my first point. It is so important for the wider world to understand that people communicate in different ways. We rarely see people using communication aids on TV or in the mainstream media (with the exception of the fantastic Stephen Hawking!).

What I find is that the general public are often very intrigued by the resources and technology that our students are using on our trips into the community. On a trip to the supermarket, a lady approached the young girl who I was working with and said, “Wow, what a great idea- having a little TV on her wheelchair!” I was then able to explain that actually, this was a communication aid, and my superstar communicator was able to demonstrate by introducing herself!

 

So if you think this sounds like an interesting idea and you fancy taking your communication session on a day trip, here are a few essential things that you may need to pack:

  • Core symbols- Core symbols consist of words that we use again and again across multiple activities. Even if your student is using a high-tech communication aid, I think ‘no-tech’ back-ups are essential. Sometimes technology lets us down or we need to take a step back if our student is working on new vocabulary.

I tend to wear core symbols on a lanyard around my neck or carry them in a small zippy wallet. The symbols that I tend to carry most often include:- ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘more’, ‘stop’, ‘want’, ‘help’,’ like’, ‘don’t like’ and ‘something different’.

In an activity such as feeding the ducks at the park, the child can use these symbols to indicate that they 1) ‘want’ to feed the ducks, 2) that they want some ‘more’ bread but that they need ‘help’ to throw it in the pond, 3) that they ‘like’ the ducks and then finally, 4) that they want to ‘stop’ and do ‘something different’.

  • Custom-made communication boards- Our students’ communication books can help them to talk about most things that they want to, but if you are going somewhere new, you might need some specific vocabulary. It’s easy to quickly rustle up a communication board on software such as Boardmaker or Matrix Maker.

For example, I took some of my students to the Fire Station a few months ago and I made the communication board below not only for the students to use but also for me to model new vocabulary to them. As you can imagine they loved telling me to put on the helmet…!

  • A switch- If your student isn’t using a high-tech communication aid, they may want a way to greet others or to initiate communication. Something like a Big Mack Switch or a Talking Tin Lid is the perfect way to do this.                            Some of the children who accompany me on trips, like to use their communication book to tell me what they want at the cafe but then prefer me to then record their order on to a switch- That way, they can order their own food using the switch, without trying to reach the impossibly high counter with their communication book!

Another fun way that I’ve recently used a switch, was on a trip to the toy shop- I recorded, “I want to look at that toy!” on one girl’s switch and as we walked up and down the aisles of the store, she took great delight in pressing her switch to let me know when she’d seen something she wanted to have a closer look at!

 

If you are a Speech and Language Therapist and you like the idea of a change of scenery, give it a go! Take communication on tour! The students will love it and I’m pretty sure you’ll be ticking off targets with every trip out!

 

* With thanks to the team at Highfurlong School for always supporting new and innovative ways to promote communication!

Communication aids and icebergs

 

Imagine that you couldn’t speak.

And then one day, you were given a ‘voice’.

How would you respond?

Maybe you’d feel overwhelmed. You might initially remain quiet, unsure of what to say or how to say it. You might not know which words to use or how to put them together. After all, speaking is new to you- like a toddler learning to walk, you might feel a bit wobbly and unsure to begin with.

Or you might be incredibly excited, desperate to make your views known, to finally express yourself. Other people might be surprised by the things that you want to tell them- All these thoughts have been inside of you for such a long time; you’ve got a lot of catching up to do!

One of my favourite roles as a Speech and Language Therapist is working with children who are non-verbal, supporting them to find a means of communication that suits them. That might be something simple, like a paper-based communication book or it might be a very tech-y voice output communication aid!

What I find fascinating, is how having a voice helps to reveal that child’s personality. Language is an incredible tool, allowing us to be humorous, to show empathy, to question, to comment, make requests, etc, etc. And when a child discovers that they now have the means to do all of this, they might feel like Person A- a little apprehensive, needing a little guidance- or like Person B- excited, enthusiastic, unsure of how to use this new skill but desperate to get started!

I saw this infographic on Twitter a while back which sums the whole process up quite nicely. Unfortunately I don’t know who made it, but all credit to them for making a visual which demonstrates that learning to use a communication system actually involves a lot of ‘behind-the-scenes’ work. I’m going to use this iceberg to discuss some of the important factors that lie under the surface of helping a child to use their new voice effectively.

Most of the children I work with use symbols to communicate. I like to think of symbols as a unique, independent language in their own right-a child has to learn to attach a meaning to a symbol, just as those of us who are verbal, learn to attach meaning to a word. The child will not automatically know that something as abstract as two arrows means ‘more’  or that a stick man holding a yellow ball means ‘favourite’.

But yet these symbols are so powerful! When listening to a song, the child can now reveal their opinion and make requests- “I want more Justin Bieber! He’s my favourite!”

How does the child learn to use these symbols to make this impact? By seeing us, as educators, health professionals or parents, using them again and again! By constantly being immersed in symbols and everyday language skills such as joining 2 symbols together to make a phrase (e.g. “More music”).  All of these skills have to be modelled and taught- This is a process which involves careful planning and takes times.

What’s become clearer to me recently is that beyond learning the language skills of a new communication system, there is this entire ‘Pandora’s Box’ of social skills.

So again, imagine that suddenly you have been given a voice and you’ve discovered what a powerful tool it is- At times you might get over-excited and talk when other people are talking. You might find it difficult to listen or wait for your turn. You’ve been quiet for so long that your thoughts and feelings now seem urgent- you feel like you need to express them right away!

You might be unsure of how to initiate communication….Or you might say things that are deemed socially inappropriate at the wrong time.

Communication is a minefield! We want our new communicators to say what they want, to express themselves. But yet communication is so much more than words and sentences- it’s taking turns, it’s responding appropriately, it’s knowing when it’s ok to make that joke vs when it’s not ok!

As the infographic demonstrated, the voice is only the tip of the iceberg! Everything going on beneath the surface needs to be taught and explained to our children learning to use their new communication system- including these subtle social skills.

Maybe we do that through Social Stories or visual cue cards. Maybe we praise our children for effective use of social skills, rewarding them for good listening and turn-taking. Maybe we have group discussions on how our language can make other people feel good (e.g. compliments) vs how our language can hurt other people (e.g. insults). Whatever we do, social skills need to be considered in our work with children using communication aids, just as they would be in our targets for verbal children with speech, language and communication needs.

One of the simplest, most touching moments of my work as a Speech and Language Therapist was when I initially set up an eye-gaze communication aid for a young girl who I work with. I took it out of the packaging, went through the set up, calibrated her eyes with the screen and we played a few cause and effect games. Then we loaded up her communication software and together, we played around with the ‘Chat page’, having a simple 2 way interaction using the device.

That afternoon, the girl’s mum came into school to see the new device that her daughter would be using. I’d put the chat page on screen and as the child’s mum sat down, her daughter said “Hello”, using this beautiful, clear, crisp, child’s voice through her communication aid.

I saw her mum’s eyes well up with tears and all I could think was how powerful that one word was. ‘Hello’- a greeting, an acknowledgement of someone’s presence, a conversation starter….

It seems so simple, but there is so much weight behind it. Just like the iceberg, that one word was just the tip, the meaning was everything under the surface.

Over the years that have followed as I’ve worked with this child, her school and her family, I’ve tried to consider the iceberg model. Everything takes time and practice. Communication isn’t something that anyone perfects over night.

We want our children to communicate to the best of their ability; to use their voice to make friends and to feel involved. The more supportive input the child receives, the better the output!

Or to put it another way-the bigger the iceberg, the better!