evolving communication

Temple’s journey is marked by shared concern and shared expertise. There was nothing more important than consistency between school and home.

– Eustacia Cutler, speaking about her daughter, Temple Grandin

From the moment that Brooke began receiving special education services at age three, we started a daily correspondence routine with her team. We have been in contact with the ever-changing team of people who support her every single day since.

From preschool until second grade, we relied entirely on the teachers, therapists and aides to tell us what had happened during the day. Heck, a three-ring circus might have performed at school on a given day, elephants and all, but if they didn’t tell us, we had no way to know.

We had templates made up for each day’s communication. There was one for the school staff to fill out to tell us about Brooke’s day and another for us to fill out to tell them about her night.

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An early template – Sorry it’s tough to read; you can click to enlarge

We were, and are, convinced that consistent, open, and honest communication between home and school is absolutely vital to Brooke’s success.

In second grade, Brooke’s aide suggested a change to the communication log. One that might have seemed inconsequential, but which was anything but. She wanted to add a section for Brooke to tell us about her day.

Now, I’m going to be honest. If someone had simply said, “Let’s give Brooke a section of the sheet to talk about her day,” I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea how to go about it. Thankfully, Ms K had it covered. She put a set of five Boardmaker emoticons on the sheet, representing five different feelings. Brooke’s job was to circle one that represented how she felt at some point during the day. It was not only utterly brilliant, it was the beginning of a paradigm shift for all of us. Ms K had shown us that there was a way to include Brooke in the process. To let HER tell us about herself. We would never look at anything the same way again.

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Not the actual eggheads we used, but close enough for illustration.

As I recall, we had Happy, Sad, Frustrated, Excited and one other that is stuck somewhere in the recesses of my brain. 

At the time (and to this day) there was a picture- and voice-supported computer writing program called Pixwriter that Brooke absolutely loved. It was such a treat for her to use it at school that we got it at home too. It allowed her to begin to write.

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A “shopping chart” that Brooke recently wrote using Pixwriter. Looks like we’d better get to the market.

In third grade, Brooke’s then-new aide added another dimension to the communication log. Brooke was now using Pixwriter to tell us when she felt the emotion that she had circled. For example, she would write, Dear Katie, I felt happy when I was in Art or Dear Winston, I felt frustrated when I was doing work. Yes, she sometimes wrote to the dog, and yes, it was incredible stuff. Not only did it help her work on understanding, identifying and communicating her emotions (which has always been a priority for us, as we believe it is the foundation of self-advocacy), it also allowed her to tell us how she was feeling, what mattered to her, what stood out for her during the day. We cherished the single lines on those printed sheets. They gave us our first glimpse into our girl’s life at school from her perspective.

Over the course of third and fourth grades, the eggheads fell away and Pixwriter took over completely. The notes expanded a bit with some prompting from Ms J. Ms J. would urge Brooke to include a little more detail, to explain things that we might not understand. She might remind her when she wrote “I was happy when we did the class cry in art,”  that “They don’t know about the class cry; can you tell them what it is?”

And then, at the beginning of this year, everything changed again. Ms J had an idea. Would we be willing, she asked, to set up an email account for Brooke? Since it’s become an almost universal method of communication, she said, it would make sense for her to learn how to use it. It would also be a fabulous opportunity to work on, well, just about everything – emotional identification and communication, reading, writing, perspective taking, social skills, creating and expanding narrative, etc, etc, etc. I couldn’t do it fast enough. I set up an email for Brooke and, with her input, entered in five contacts: Mama, Daddy, Katie, Papa and Grammy. (Sadly, the dogs don’t have email.) She was ready to go.

In the beginning, Ms J did a fair amount of prompting, pushing Brooke beyond the one or two lines that she initially wanted to write. She asked her to flesh out her writing with details, to lengthen her narrative with just a little bit more of the story. She helped her with syntax and punctuation.

On September 13th, we got our very first email. Although it’s clear that Ms J had a heavy hand in facilitating it, it’s also clear that the ideas are all Brooke’s.

Hi Mama, Daddy, and Katie,

Lots of things happened at school today. Some were surprising, some were nice and some were scary. I’m gonna tell you about 2 of them. The first one was scary. It was the fire alarm. I was in my classroom and all of a sudden the fire alarm went off. I felt a little bit scared but I rocked it. I took a deep breathe and went outside with the class. I stayed calm and felt proud because I didn’t cry. Another thing was when we were in science. During science I made a boat out of tin foil and got to put it in the water to see if it can float with 25 pennies. My vessel had a little bit of water but it didn’t sink. I was happy that it floated. My favorite part of my day was floating the boats in science. Talk to you soon.

XOXOXOXOXO

Brooke

Over time, Ms J and Brooke have created a formula for the emails. They now always include an emotion, an event related to the emotion, and a question or comment about the recipient. The rest is left to Brooke. Ms J still prompts her to add detail and helps with punctuation, but the words are always Brooke’s. In fact, yesterday’s email was, as per Ms J’s attached note, completely independent. Or, as she put it, “Completely independent!!!!!!”

Hi Mama
I had chorus today. During chorus some people were talking. It made Ms. S unhappy. How is your day? I was really happy when I was at recess because I liked building a snowman with my friends M, G, and L. Talk to you later.
XOXOXOXOXOXO,
Brooke

Oh, and, for the record, receiving them is ALWAYS my favorite part of the day.

Note: emails shared with Brooke’s permission

26 thoughts on “evolving communication

  1. the word you used in the title says it all: evolving. her wonderful mind just keeps growing and growing…and the fact that she’s now an e-mail pro, it’s just very exciting. i’m beaming just reading this, i can’t even imagine how you guys must feel.

  2. This is similar to how our set up was. I actually started blogging in not a blogging way but because I would just blog what we did all weekend so that the school could go there and read it and on Mondays when he had his therapies they could guide the conversations. It was so helpful for them. Honestly it always made me super aware that we had better not sit in our Jammie’s all weekend ;). It was a great tool

  3. I am a special ed teacher and would love anyone’s input on how I could facilitate something similar for my students. My main setback is the fact that I have 9 students and 3 staff–no one has one-on-one aides here. 😦

    • em, firstly, thank you for reading! secondly, i can only imagine that it’s got to be tough to carve out individualized time! my suggestion to another reader today was to use email writing in lieu of another activity such as journailing or guided writing. perhaps you could have two of the staff members do small group work, even brainstorming ideas / topics to write about in the emails while the third works on the computer with each child in turn. it definitely takes some creativity (as i’m sure most things do in a special ed – or any classroom) but it’s well worth it, i think!

    • … *my* face.

      It’s too early for pronouns.

      (Here, use the grammar error for inspiration: I write speeches now, but I couldn’t conjugate until I was 13, and I still have to edit even quick comments very carefully, as you can see. So at this rate, Brooke is probably on track to write the next Harry Potter.)

      • Thank you, Julia! I am, as you well know, so inspired by your work. I’m so grateful for your kind words and encouragement. 

  4. Reblogged this on Coloring Outside The Lines and commented:
    When Chase goes back to school after the Winter break we will be reconvening his IEP team to discuss next steps. I am definitely going to request that we work on incorporating a communication log – since this is something that I we have struggled with since Kindergarten. I am so grateful to Jess’s blog a diary of a mom and her daughter Brooke.

  5. I so loved reading this. When my son entered kindergarten last year I wanted to have daily communication with his teacher, but she was completely resistant. It made finding out what was happening with my son incredibly difficult, since when I would ask him about his day he would run screaming into his bedroom. We soon learned to not ask him about school right off the bus, however by the time he was ready to talk he had forgotten. He so much lives in the moment in so many things, and has a hard time speaking about “what happened” in the past. This year things are better, he spends much more time in the resource room and I insisted on better communication. It isn’t where I want it yet, but it is on the right track. When we reconvene for his IEP team in January I will be bringing your ideas to the table. Thank you.

    • Be sure to enter the specifics of what you expect and the method of delivery into the IEP. The more detail the better. I highly recommend attaching a sheet similar to the one above to the IEP (in additional comments) just as you would an FBA. 😉

  6. I love love love reading this. My 3.5 year old son just got diagnosed and we’re still shell shocked. He will be leaving his comfy, warm daycare (where he just can’t get support and help he needs) and go to the cold, military like public school (OK, I don’t know this for a fact but that’s my fear) soon. I would love to request a daily progress report in his IEP when we have a meeting with the school dept. Is there any way you could email me a sample? He too could have a 3 ring circus with elephants come to daycare and we wouldn’t know it. I can click on the one you posted but can’t read it as the font is tiny. I’m so new at all this, so your blog is helping me survive these first days of having rx…Thank you.

  7. I am being inspired by your blog. My 9 year old son has Asperger’s/HFA, and this would be a PERFECT activity for him. Emotions are very tough for him, as well as those pesky details. I’m off to fight with the school again…

  8. What a great idea! My son is 19, but I think this would be a great thing to do still. Thanks for sharing! Brooke you are wonderful!

  9. I just recieved my first email from my daughter at school. I’m so excited (and a little weepy)! Thank you for giving us the idea!

    At school, we make posters. Where will we go next? We can’t wait to find out!
    At buddy time, I make recycle.

    From A.

    Where will we go next, indeed?

  10. Is there any chance that I could see a copy of the pre-school communication log template? I cannot read the jpg you included here. It would be a great help! I am now fighting to have a daily communication log established for my non-verbal 4 year old. I never have any idea what is actually happening during his day. I drop-off and pick-up, instead of using the bus, just so I can get a 5 minute update on how he is doing. It is never anything too helpful though. I am always asking to know what skills they are working on, what strategies they are focusing on, what the theme of the day/week/month is….I want to know what is going on so that I can extend his learning at home by building on what they are doing at school. They make it seem like such a hassle, but they have a 6:9 adult:student ratio! I see typical preschoolers going home with daily communication, and all I get is a quick update of, “He didn’t like painting today.” or “He really enjoyed the swing.”. Nice sentiments, but I want to support his learning and skill acquisition! We do our own activities at home, but I think we could be more effective if we communicated and worked together! Thank you for any help you can offer! I love this blog and specifically this post! Thank you for sharing!

    • Dena, sadly, I don’t have it anymore, so the copy here is all I’ve got (which was from elementary anyway, not pre-k). It’s really just a matter of dividing the day into it’s parts and asking for specific info from each activity / therapy / etc.

      ie – in speech activities were .. level of prompting / support was .. other students in group were … (they will often use initials only of other students for their privacy, but at least it gives you something.)

      circle time activity was .. level of support was … etc.

      at recess, he played on the … and … and interacted with .. and … level of support was ..

      i hope that helps. sorry i don’t have a template, but i think it’s always best to individualize it to what the kiddo is doing anyway.

      • That is a great start! Thank you! We get session notes from the OT and SLP, but they are usually in shorthand, and not very informative. I have only received resistance from every mention I have made about daily communication logs, but after a full year of being essentially in the dark about his day I need to demand something be done formally. Thank you for your support!

      • attach a copy of the template to your IEP in the additional information section and then in the body of the document make sure that it says that it will be filled out daily and include xyz details. everything has to be in writing. even requests to put things in writing. 🙂

      • I hear you. I am a special ed teacher/autism specialist, but my experience is with school age children, navigating Early Intervention is like being Alice in Wonderland. They keep telling me that daily communication cannot be written into the IEP, but when I found out that my kiddo’s SLP had missed 15 sessions without a peep from the school or the teacher – suddenly we were able to write in that there will be bi-monthly written communication from the therapists. I think I may have to make some calls to supervisors of supervisors, but we will not go another year without daily communication written into his IEP. Thanks again for your help!

  11. I have a 9 yr old boy who has autism. I “liked” your Facebook page a while back. You reposted this gem of a blog post. It really resonated with me. I couldn’t read it enough. I shared it with my son’s teacher, aide & ST and asked if they could start doing something like this. I thought he’d start out on pictures, but to my surprise that day (just last week) he sent me an email via his ST’s email address. I set up an account for him to have his own. He was SO excited! Now I get emails daily from him. Just today, we had our first back-and-forth email conversation about a toy he discovered was missing from school & he thought it was at home. It was AMAZING to have this dialogue with him. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!! If you hadn’t posted your blog it might never have occurred to me to try something like this. Its just absolutely incredible that my son and I can have conversations now!!! Thank you!!!

  12. Another thing to try, maybe from middle school or above, is texting. My son’s diagnosis is ADHD and Migraines, but even his counselor admits that “he has a lot of autistic like traits, just not quite bad enough for a ruling” and we are fighting for more testing. Some days texting is the only real communication we have, but it’s short, fast, and he communicates much more when he doesn’t have to make eye contact. His favorite thing lately is texting when he’s right next to me, talking about other people in the room

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