Working With Students With Complex Needs

Jacquie Clark

Founder of n2y

We work with so many talented and creative people in the field of education, speech-language pathology and assistive technology. We all want to create materials, but the creation must always start with the student’s need.

The need is always the focus.

After the team identifies the need, we articulate the goal. What is the student’s goal? What is our collective aim for this student? How will we identify success when we see it? Keep in mind, as well, that the goal may change. The team may believe that a specific direction is the best course of action, but over time, a different set of actions is required.

The team must be both committed and flexible, keeping an eye on the data for decision-making.

With the student needs identified and the goal articulated, the team can unleash its creative potential generating any and every material and support for the student. Is there a list? Are they print? Digital? Are they mobile? What sizes are the materials? What size is the accompanying text? How much wait time does the child need? What prompt levels are required? These, among other questions, may have different answers over time as the student grows and develops. Keep observing. Keep asking. Keep discussing with the team. Keep an eye on the data. When data drives our decisions and instruction, success is almost inevitable.

Reward Interaction and Instruction

When we think about students with complex communication needs, as teams, we want to think about the day they leave us. It is our obligation to help refine their communication responses to make them consistent so that they can communicate in their environments and worlds beyond school.

Screaming, crying, laughing, shifting body weight, glancing, orienting to sound, reaching and other participation responses are meaningful. They can be noticed through observation and should be rewarded through daily classroom interaction and instruction.

Combat Team or Student Fatigue

When students have complex communication needs, there is a lot of training required around the child with information, samples and modeling in the classroom. The educational team can work together to identify methods, materials, tools and techniques to help the student communicate and participate in the classroom activities and lessons. This should be done in a team approach.

With the student’s needs at the center of every decision and an invested, creative, educational team using data to make decisions, challenges seem less daunting! Still, at times, progress may be difficult to see. Here are some ways to combat team or student fatigue:

  • Vary activities! Change it up for staff and for the student! Change the setting, the tools, the cues or any part that seems to be stale! You might be surprised at the results.
  • Stay excited! Find ways to stay excited each and every time you are engaged with the student. It is possible that the activity you are presenting is the hardest goal ever presented to the student. Stay with it. Be encouraging. Help the student achieve it.
  • Keep the team excited! Look for ways to keep the team members excited. There are natural slumps during the year when staff might find it more difficult to be completely engaged in activities. This is when true educators will be present, really in the moment, for the students and help them show what they know. Remind your teammates of the progress the students are making because of the team’s efforts!
  • Take the long view! Look at the data week to week, month to month and quarter to quarter. Daily progress may be difficult to see, but if the team tracks data on those selected goals based on needs, progress will show over time.

Professional Development and Planning

Serving students with complex communication needs requires building professional skills over time. Developing those team skills takes planning. Consider these ideas for developing team and individual skills:

Plan meetings with building staff to highlight students’ strengths, needs, activities, schedules and plans. Leverage school calendars to meet parents on parent night, grandparent lunch day, parent/teacher conference night, book sale day, donut sale, fruit sale, fundraising event, harvest party afternoon, etc. Schedule a ‘Share the Love’ event in February or October to share techniques and tactics that work with students and invite siblings!

Every child wants to be successful. If we can help them achieve it, what a wonderful accomplishment that would be. It isn’t our success. It truly is theirs. We are just helping them.

About the Author

Jacquie Clark is a speech-language pathologist and the founder of n2y. She developed the idea of using current events to support the education of students with special needs, and published her first newspaper-based book in 1997. Jacquie holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Bowling Green State University and a Master of Arts degree from the University of Cincinnati. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for n2y.