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WE are Communicating: Meeting the Needs of Students

WE are Communicating: Meeting the Needs of Students

Asking a question or sharing what you would like to do may seem like an easy task, but what if you struggle to communicate? Maybe you speak a different language or are a student with a disability who has limitations with your ability to use your natural voice. Then what?

Nearly 300 students in Lakota schools are using alternative methods of communication to interact with their teachers, aides and other staff in the classroom. Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS) is one way that Lakota students are able to communicate with their teachers. Another way is by using speech generating devices such as iPADs or specifically dedicated computers. 

“A Picture Exchange Communication System is one method of teaching communication to students,” explains Lynne Craig, one of Lakota’s speech and language pathologists. Students learn to exchange a picture or object with a communication partner such a family member, staff person or peer in order to indicate what they want or need. “PECS is sometimes the first level of teaching kids how to communicate.” 

Some students, especially at the preschool level, must start at the very beginning. For example, they are taught how to point in general and then they learn to point to a picture of a ball. Other students utilize electronic devices, such as apps on iPADs, to communicate. The students use these programs by pushing or selecting buttons on the device to indicate what they want. The button then says a simple phrase or word to gain attention or request items. “The picture or button is a way to gain access to something the child wants or to engage with other people,” said Craig. As students are able to understand basic communication, they are given more vocabulary and encouraged to use more phrases and sentences. The type of device or method utilized is based on assessment of the student’s skills and interests.

Personalized learning, which plays an integral role in Lakota’s mission statement, is at the center of special education. “A one-size fits all methodology is the exact opposite of the support we offer in special education,” explained Andrea Longworth, the district’s executive director of special services.

Students may have their own set of picture cards or their teachers and aides may carry a set with them. Other students use personalized pictures on an iPad or other speech-generating devices. “Teaching students to communicate is highly individualized,” said Longworth. “Some students are able to use just a few symbols while others are able to navigate hundreds. Every student is different; some may use their fingers to point to a picture, while others are able to use a stylus. Still others may use a special program on a device that allows them to use their eyes to select a picture.”

One of the struggles the special services department tries to overcome is the wide variety of symbols used for communication. “Pictures and symbols aren’t universal,” said Craig. Just like there are different types of toothpaste, each picture or symbol may be slightly different. Some systems use symbols, some use photographs and some use drawings. In addition to the different types of symbols, each student’s needs are different. For example, a photograph may need to be adjusted in order for a visually impaired student to be able to see it. 

Longworth and her team continue to think outside the box to meet the needs of students with disabilities. “It is our goal that all students have an appropriate means of communication across all environments,” she said. To meet this goal, Longworth has an ongoing open dialogue with Lakota CARES. 

The organization, started by a group of Lakota parents, is dedicated to working with Lakota and providing support for families with students with disabilities or those with learning differences. CARES stands for Championing Abilities, Relationships, Equity, and Strengths. “We wanted to create a space where it’s more collaborative with the district and share correct information,” said Maureen Mowl, one of the founding members of the organization.

Longworth and her team have been considering options to help students better communicate during recess. While these various systems work well in the classroom, one of the challenges occurs on the playground: what do students do with their communication books or iPads when using the equipment or playing games on the playground? Installing large communication boards that utilize pictures is one idea. 

This year, the district will be purchasing boards for its preschool, early childhood and elementary school playgrounds. Heritage Early Childhood and Union Elementary schools have been chosen to pilot having a communications board on the playground. These schools were chosen because they are two of the schools that have social communication classrooms and have a higher population of students who utilize iPADs or communication picture books to communicate. “We want to make the best decisions for our students and do that in a fiscally responsible way,” Longworth said. “We’re incredibly grateful for the support of the Heritage and Union parent organizations as we begin this pilot program.” She also appreciates gathering feedback and collaborating with the community and the Lakota CARES members. “We all want what is best for our students.”

“The communication board is a tool that will help students communicate quicker and more directly with the staff,” explained Mowl. “As we talk about the disability culture, it’s a teachable moment,” she continued. “If a student asks about the communication board on the playground, it’s an opportunity to talk about the diversity of communication methods in our schools and help students understand. Isn’t that cool!”

Craig agrees and looks forward to seeking options to help her students better communicate in and out of the classroom. “They’re not kids who don’t talk. They’re kids who communicate differently.”

If you are interested in learning more about CARES, please visit their website, Facebook page or email

  • special education